31 January 2007

In Defense of Joe Biden

Joe Biden recently said this about Barak Obama:
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

It would appear that his candidacy for president is once again over. I hope not. I'd like to step in to defend this man.

We live in a gotcha culture that makes politicians timid and teaches them to focus on avoiding mistakes rather than focusing on doing what is right. If we make such stupid statements the reason to cut off the candidacy of the one guy who has consistently been bold enough to criticize Bush's Iraq policy and informed and thoughtful enough to offer an alternative (usually staying at least one step ahead of his peers and the press) then we're in trouble. If a candidate has to avoid saying stupid things for two years, you can be sure that he’ll say meaningless things instead. Only people who avoid actually saying anything are guaranteed to say nothing offensive or stupid.

Compare what he has said with the list of things said by the man who has most recently been elected president. Then, more importantly, compare what he has thought and the way in which he has candidly shared his thoughts, with what has been thought by our chief explainer.
Put away your notions of getting a pure candidate. It's not going to happen. Focus instead on what a candidate will do in spite of the personal flaws.

You Can't Kill Chickens in Texas

Newsweek reports that the cops of Euless, Texas stopped Jose Merced from killing a chicken on his property.

Like most towns of 46,000, Euless has the usual array of eateries: Wendy's and Burger King, a couple of McDonald's, and, inexplicably, 29 Domino Pizza joints. One doubts that the people of this small Texan town are squeamish about eating meat and has to wonder whether the red meat eating contingent of Texas law enforcement aren't making plans to do away with chicken restaurants now that they've shut down all the diners featuring quiche.

But Jose Merced is not killing the chicken to barbeque it. He was going to kill the chicken as part of a ritual sacrifice he was performing as a Santeria priest. The officials of this small town won't grant him a permit to perform this act not because they are desperate to protect the lives of chickens but because they don't like the idea that such a strange religious ritual could be performed in their town. Hm.

Euless, TX. Odd name. Rhymes with Clueless, doesn't it?

30 January 2007

You Will Be in Heaven - Mother Teresa We're Not So Sure About

About a decade ago, Mother Teresa was voted the world's most respected woman and around that time, 22 March 1997, Reuters ran a story that began as follows:

"Americans are quite confident that they will get to heaven. Mother Teresa they are not as sure about.
"A poll released yesterday found that 67 percent of Americans are certain that heaven exists. An even larger number - 87 percent - thought they were likely to go there, perhaps a sign that math literacy is not necessarily a prerequisite for entering the pearly gates.
"Mother Teresa was heaven-bound according to 79 percent of the 1000 adults surveyed in the poll commission by U.S. News and World Report magazine."

The article went on to say that in spite of 87 percent of Americans believing that they would get into heaven, only 18 percent thought that all their friends would join them. Mind you, these are not their neighbors - these are their friends. 18 percent. Just think how low Mother Teresa might have scored if she were actually friends with the folks who were polled.

Everywhere we go, we're the center of our own universe, I guess. In this case it's a moral universe, but a universe nevertheless. Poor Mother Teresa. She had no idea that entrance to heaven was based on a vote. The catch? Apparently we all get just one vote and we've already cast it for ourselves.

Mothers and Presidential Race 2008 Policy Proposal One

The civilized world rests on the fragile foundation of mothers. We digress about the influence of media, the quality of our schools, and the importance of good government. All those are important, but none is as influential on a child as his or her mother. Because we've forgotten this fundamental fact, we've ignored what mothers are going through. We all know that mothers are, in record numbers, raising children alone. Additionally, mothers are more likely to raise a child hundreds of miles away from a family network of their parents or siblings, resources that have historically been available for tasks as simple as baby sitting while she runs an errand or as profound as offering advice about how to deal with bad behavior or a child who wakes the household many times a night. Finally, jobs demand more and both mothers and fathers are forced to juggle parenting with excessive hours and stress from jobs they're required to work in order to pay the rent or mortgage. The traditional social supports of partner, extended family, or tolerant (or even unnecessary) employer have eroded. What we need is recognition of this fact. One little thing that we can begin doing to help - and it is just one little thing that will need so many other supporting tissues to work - is to offer education and support sessions for mothers. I'm proposing a series of pilot programs to introduce free sessions for mothers. Once these pilots have been revised to the point that they have proven successful, I would fund the rollout of a nationwide program. These sessions will meet at least three needs. One, mothers will be in classes with peers who have children roughly the same age, creating social networks that are helpful in ways that can scarcely be calculated. Two, these sessions will share the latest and best research on nutrition, learning, behavior, and child development. These courses will continue for years.

And three, these courses will do more than offer advice. They will be agents for problem solving, forming a central reference place for dealing with issues as varied as spousal or child abuse to homelessness or finding and funding a dentist. The leaders of these sessions will effectively be advocates for mothers, working with agencies as varied as urban housing and local schools to help these mothers to more effectively care for the children they love. There are a variety of questions and further issues raised by this proposal. For instance, I would propose as part of the legislation tax breaks for employers who allow mothers time off to attend these sessions. These and other kinds of supporting initiatives could be worked out at the various pilot program sites.

This initiative will help with education; it is time to stop admonishing teachers to do the job that we won't help mothers to do. Teachers can't be expected to raise children but we do need to do more to help mothers to do just that. Just as it is not enough to praise troops and then leave them to fight unarmed and unprotected, we have to do more than praise mothers and do more to ensure that they have what they need to do their jobs.
[I'm going to begin an intermittent series of proposals that I'd like to hear from a candidate - any candidate - for president in 2008. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm looking for a candidate who aligns with my values but just as importantly, I am looking for a candidate who shows signs of being a social inventor like FDR. Too many candidates can (and have) polled people to learn how to speak to their values; at this point I am less interested in a candidate who tells me that he'll sell me a Van Morrison record than a candidate who has invented an iPod that lets me listen to Van Morrison in a new way. This is the first in a series of sketches of policy innovations that I would support.]

29 January 2007

Changing the Presidency Into a Two-Person Job

My daughter told me an amusing story. A group of medieval monks were arguing about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth, trying to remember what number Aristotle had claimed they had. A young monk said, "Well, we all rode here on horses. Why don't we just go out to the stable, open the mouth of a horse, and count the teeth?" His idea was dismissed as nonsensical.

In today's political world, we rarely go out to the stable to actually take inventory of what is needed. Instead, it is fashionable to debate about what the writers' of the constitution actually meant by this or that point. Readers of this blog will know that I frequently refer to the need for social invention as a partner to technological invention. I'd like to ask the reader to step away from the constitution and walk out to the stable with me as I make the case for a change to our current politics.

Intel is increasingly relying on "two-in-a-box" executive positions. Instead of putting a single person in charge of their communications division, they'll put two. The markets, the technology, and the direction of the business are so complex that it makes sense to share authority over it. Why not consider this model for the US Presidency. The complexity facing the holder of that position is certainly no less than that facing the two-person teams running an Intel division.

Imagine that we have, say, Joe Biden and John Edwards, sharing the presidency. Biden could couple his foreign policy smarts and experience with Edwards domestic agenda and youth. Or, depending on your brand of coffee, you might prefer to see McCain and Chuck Hagel, or for the really bold, Clinton and Huckabee (who may come from different parties but who both come from Arkansas). I, for one, quite like the idea of two people sharing duties, one able to largely focus on foreign policy affairs and the other focused on domestic issues.

I know, I know. Supposedly presidents have cabinets to help complement their expertise. But it is a very different thing to give advice and be responsible for implementing that advice. Partnership has a great tradition in this country. Think of Hewlett & Packard or Laurel & Hardy. Isn't it time that we stepped out into the stable and took stock of what we really expect of a president before concluding that it is a one-person job?

28 January 2007

W. Edwards Deming on the Future of Capitalism

WARNING: This will probably challenge your notions about what constitutes good management AND what a prophet of the future should sound like.

Deming is one of my heroes. Here he explains how the current system of management destroys the individual. Think about how much within the corporation would have to change in order for what he advocates to become true.

27 January 2007

Goals and the Meta-Goals

We all have two meta-goals: define a goal and then achieve that goal.

You are sitting around on a Friday night or thinking about a change in your career. Your first step, your first meta-goal, is to define a goal. What do you want to do with your evening? What do you want to do for a career or cash flow?Once you've defined that goal, your next meta-goal is to achieve this newly articulated goal. You call friends to see if they will join you for dinner or begin to call could-be employers to learn whether they have any openings.

My opinion is that we generally spend an inordinate amount of time on pursuing goals and very little time articulating them.

Many goals get abandoned either because they weren't practical or they weren't really an expression of who we were. We shy away from the existential angst that invariably comes with the search to define a goal.

It just feels so much better to have a goal - even if it is a petty thing - than to drift without a goal. So, many people short circuit the inevitably frustrating work of finding a goal and leap into pursuing one. Show a little courage: struggle through the darkness rather than avoid it.

“To collect one’s forces, even when they seem to be scattered, and when one’s aim is only dimly perceived -- this is a great action and will sooner or later bring forth fruits.”
- Maria Montessori

Be patient. Find a goal that is articulated by a conspiracy of your head, heart, and gut. You won't just find the pursuit of that goal more gratifying - you'll find yourself.

The Stem Cell Controversy: No Scripture, No Science, No Ethics, No Funding

At the point at which embryonic stem cells are useful to researchers, they have multiplied into only about 30 cells. By contrast, a fly has about 100,000 brain cells. Opposition to stem cell research seems to lack a basis in ethics, scripture, or science.

Consider the ethics. Imagine that you are a nurse working in a clinic, helping women to get pregnant. You are at a critical time step in getting semen to a woman who is ready. If you are delayed at all, the window of opportunity for conception closes. En route to her room, you are suddenly confronted with an adult who has stopped breathing. You are the only person able to revive him. Your choice is to let the sperm die or let the man die. I can hardly imagine a system of ethics that would suggest even a moment's hesitation.

We would never grant more rights to a tube full of semen than to a dying human being, and yet we are supposed to hesitate about choosing between the rights of millions suffering from injury and disease and microscopic amounts of stem cells? The only people who think that this is ethical are those who argue from a dubious religious position.

The political opposition to stem cell research rarely refutes claims that this research promises to cure diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or problems like paralysis. Rather, they oppose it because of the sanctity of life. What kind of life? A cluster of 30 cells that is no more cognizant of their own existence than is a sperm or egg cell. Theirs is supposedly a religious opposition, but it is not clear what religious authority they cite.

The Old Testament has many laws, including warnings against mixing different types of material in one garment, prohibitions against eating shell fish and pork or working on the Sabbath. Not even in the midst of such detailed law does it take time to mention the sanctity of the life of stem cells – or even a fetus. Nor does Christ mention such issues anywhere in his teachings. What these supposedly religious opponents to science never mention when speaking out against stem cell research is that there is not a single Biblical verse supporting their stance.

And this is the odd thing: with neither scripture nor science nor ethics on their side, these people have still managed to block federal funding for this research. It is time for everyone - whether they are secularists, Jews or Christians - to ask who these people are and how they got to make life and death decisions for the rest of us.

24 January 2007

Leadership and Social Innovation

Leadership suggests two things. One, you are going someplace new. Two, you have followers. By definition, leaders can't look to their followers for a destination and yet that seems to be just what politicians have been doing of late.

W. Edwards Deming said, "No customer ever asked for the telephone or bicycle or computer."

Reliance on focus groups and polling numbers will never substitute for real leadership, for the kind of innovation that offers solutions. Great leaders are invariably adept at one of two things: either they are social innovators or know how to popularize social innovations. FDR's New Deal, Gandhi's non-violent protests, and Teddy Roosevelt's conservation programs were all innovations and represented leadership at its best.

The 2008 presidential race has already begun. I'm looking for a leader who will champion or generate social innovations.

23 January 2007

Where is the Draft of Bush's State of the Union?

I'm reading Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid by Joe Klein. He makes it clear how much influence consultants armed with polling information and focus groups have over the message of candidates eager to win the approval of voters. I read a transcript of George's State of the Union address. It reads like a litany of issues that the American people have shown themselves concerned about: entitlement spending, climate change, the deficit, etc. (Once again close to half of this country's state of the union is about Iraq's state of disarray, but that is another matter.) Klein makes it clear how much care is put into the words and phrases that politicians use - each carefully tested for maximum approval. But this is the part that I would find fascinating. Where are those focus groups, those polled Americans, who were exposed to the words, phrases, priorities, and concepts that bombed? I would love to talk with them about how the draft concepts differed from what was finally delivered.

It could be that we'd better be able to predict Bush's actions if we could see the draft of his speeches. When campaigning against Gore, Bush spoke out against nation-building. One now wonders if he just stumbled into that occupation as an accident or whether he had always wanted to engage in nation-building but exorcised that from his campaign speeches when it polled poorly in focus groups. It may well be that only by reading the early, unpolled and unedited versions of his state of the union speech would we be able to predict what new surprises Bush may have in store for us in his these final two years of his presidency.

Employees Becoming Entrepreneurs

If anything has defined the great institutions of Western Civilization, it is their eventual adoption of a model that allows individuals greater freedom and autonomy. We’ve seen this in the church, in the state, and even in financial markets. I suspect that we’re about to see it in the corporation. Popularizing entrepreneurship within corporations will inevitably spill into other sectors as well. As we do, the impact will be a century in which social innovation will become as common as technological innovation has become in the last century. The consequences of this can hardly be imagined.

Entrepreneurs typically start businesses. More broadly, entrepreneurship refers to creating some kind of social construct, institutionalizing a solution to some need that was previously not met or not met as well. There are, in my mind, layers to this. The first guy to start a drive-through hamburger stand was a pioneering entrepreneur; the guys who imitated him were also entrepreneurs, but of a lesser kind; the guys who franchised from those imitators were entrepreneurs as well, but, once again, of an even lesser kind. All accept variability in their income – variability that is ultimately a function of how well they’ve put together an operation that meets market demand. This is in contrast to the employee who accepts little variability in income. Additionally, entrepreneurs almost invariably risk not just their income but their capital. But the lesson of the pioneer with the concept, the imitators who follow, and the franchisees who follow the imitators, points out that there is not simply one level of entrepreneurship.

So let’s look at a traditional company, using an example from 50 years ago. An entrepreneur starts it. One of his acts is to hire employees. If the company does well, those employees have “job security,” but it is only the entrepreneur who sees increase in his wealth because of increases in company equity.

Now, let’s take an example from 7 years ago. An entrepreneur not only starts a business, but he makes his employees a part of it through stock or stock options. Now, if the business increases in value, the employees see their net worth rise as well. They have capital in the game as well as their efforts.

Finally, let’s take an example 5 years from now. A traditional entrepreneur starts a business and in the course of the business has to establish legal, accounting, IT, finance (etc.) infrastructure. He has employees. Once the business is underway, a subset of the employees sees an opportunity to create a new market or to patent a new product.

At this point the company can handle it one of two ways. The traditional way would be for these employees to undertake the project and enjoy whatever rewards the company has – promotions, stock sharing, a bonus.

If the company were more entrepreneurial, the original entrepreneur would see this as an opportunity to become a venture capitalists of sorts. He would potentially finance this new venture and the employees who came up with the inner-business plan might even put some of their own money into the venture. They would now make the same or less than before, they would have invested their own money, they would be using the existing infrastructure for its expertise (the patent attorney, the accountants, the IT guys, etc.). They would be able to focus on developing the product and market (or perhaps only the product, using the existing marketing group).

If the product takes off, the original entrepreneur does really well – better than those venture capitalists who do so well. Why does he do so well? Because he’s not just got a piece of the venture, as a venture capitalist would, but his piece is bigger because he has basically provided these employee-entrepreneurs with an incubator, providing them with the core elements of the business that they might not have the capital, inclination, or expertise to provide.

The employee-entrepreneurs make more money as well. Whether the venture is actually spun off or merely valued by an outside agency, it will have some equity value. As the “entrepreneurs,” the guys who started this venture will have a chunk of this. That chunk they have may actually generate more money for them than what is paid to the CEO.

What this suggests is that the corporation slowly changes over. It started as a bureaucracy that employees you in a function and is beginning to transition into a project-centric company that puts more emphasis on regularly creating new products or services than in maintaining the bureaucracy. Finally, I predict that the evolution will continue until you have a created a place where innovation within the corporation has echoes of innovation within a country. This is possible in part because of the transformation of financial markets – corporations have access to capital and the capital investment tools that previously only banks had.

I see this transformation as a means to stimulate an enormous amount of innovation and equity creation. And, of course, provide more autonomy to the individual. In my mind, the employee would not be required to become an entrepreneur, but would have the opportunity to become one without risking everything to do it.

22 January 2007

At last! A Practical Solution to Traffic Congestion

Beginning Tuesday, Americans traveling into the US from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean must have passports. Congress passed this new rule in 2004 in an effort to make the country safer. The problem is, only one quarter of Americans have passports.

So, what will be the impact of this? The short term effect will be Americans lined up at our borders, waiting for their paperwork to get through already overloaded government agencies. The medium term effect will be Americans discovering how affordable and relaxed life is in our neighboring countries. The long-term effect is best of all.

About 20 million Americans travel internationally each year. If some portion of them can't get back into the country, think about how much that will lessen traffic congestion. Abandoned houses will go onto the market, helping to make housing more affordable. Key employees will be lost and the demand for replacement workers will drive up wages. I would go on, but the unintended benefits of making this a safer country are beyond my ability to calculate. And here all this time I thought that congress didn't really care about quality of life issues.

Capital Glut and the Popularization of Entrepreneurship

This intriguing graph indicates that the capital globally raised is about $400 billion more than capital invested. In simple language, there is more money available to fund ventures than there are credible ventures to pursue. We can create those ventures by transforming corporations and what it means to be an employee.

One of the biggest sources of potential innovation is from within corporations. In 1900, very few of those working were knowledge workers. It was an elite role. By 2000, many in developed countries were knowledge workers and we'd popularized education and information technology that drove unprecedented inreases in productivity. In 2000, very few of those working play the role of entrepreneurs. In order to raise the percentage of entrepreneurs by 2050 in a growth path similar to that for knowledge workers, we'll have to do a variety of things. One huge factor in the growth of knowledge workers traced back to the transformation of financial markets. (Knowledge workers need big capital investments to be productive. Russia and Eastern Europe have delightful education rates but are unable to put graduates into labs and corporations where their knowledge can be translated into valuable products and services.) In order to popularize entrepreneurship, we will need a transformation of the corporation that has echoes of the transformation of financial markets.

Imagine a corporation where employees could choose to pursue roles as traditional employees, as old-fashioned entrepreneurs, or some hybrid of the two. Employees who don't want to gamble the ability to put their children through college but are willing to gamble their ability to retire early or to buy a second home may take a role that is some kind of a hybrid, employee-entrepreneur, with some mix of shared profits with their employer, some mix of salary and loan or deferred compensation. This is more possible than ever because there is more capital than ever. As a global community, we have more money to finance more ventures.

There are a variety of benefits that would flow from this. Imagine that funding for, and even the team members provided to, new ventures was a function of employees’ perception of the value of that venture, or project. Internal markets would naturally indicate where the employees felt highest future returns lie. Imagine how much companies would learn about where to invest if they simply let employees vote on where to put their time and even a portion of their 401(k) funds in anticipation of shared returns? Imagine that employees would not just have investment opportunities (as they do now through stock markets) but have the ability to influence the success of those ventures (as entrepreneurs who take on start ups do).

The technology and practice within financial markets has been transformed since the days of JP Morgan a century past. As a result we have trillions of dollars sloshing around the globe in search of higher returns. Imagine transforming our corporations in a way that realizes this potential, popularizing entrepreneurship as we have previously popularized knowledge work. Such a move could easily stimulate an increase in demand for investment capital - an increase that could increase returns, levels of innovation, and the potential for the average employee within corporations.

Because of the transformation in financial markets during the last century, the average employee has become the most influential capitalist. Through mutual and retirement funds, typical households now control more of the equity market than do large investors. This popularization of financial markets is unique in human history. Now, financial markets and corporations have to collude to create mechanisms that give these new capitalists greater control over their equity, allow them to more directly influence corporate innovation and policy in a way that will most benefit these workers, in a way that gives them the most autonomy.

Reading the Remains of the Guacamole Dip

In the tradition of reading tea leaves, I'm going to make yesterday's defeat of Patriots and Saints mean something. What can one predict about 2007 based on the NFL championship games? What does it mean that these idealized paragons of church and state were sent home? My Guacamole Oracle tells me that this year we'll finally get beyond the tiresome and at-times obsessive conversation about church and state and move on.

21 January 2007

An Intelligent Conversation?

Indulge me in a moment of pleasure and optimism: The Atlantic and Andrew Sullivan are teaming up. Sullivan's blog will be folded into The Atlantic's website and he will become one of their senior editors.

Andrew Sullivan is a thinker I've inexplicably enjoyed since his time as editor at The New Republic 15 years ago. I say inexplicably not because his tone, erudition, and writing lack obvious appeal. I say inexplicably because I'm not conservative, Catholic, or gay - as he is. In spite of our differences in worldview, I find his ideas compelling.

The Atlantic is, for me, the epitome of good journalism. It is intelligent, thoughtful, and reluctant to rush to a conclusion when the data suggests no easy answer. I suppose no one source has had more influence on my political sensibilities; I began reading it in my late teens, more than a quarter of a century ago.

The Atlantic is more like a book than a magazine in that its articles have a shelf life rather like wine; a blog, by contrast, typically has a shelf life more like milk. Given it comes out only 10 times a year, The Atlantic is somewhat like a prepared speech to which one listens. A blog, by contrast, is more like a conversation in which one engages. (but is, sadly enough, too often like a conversation with someone suffering from ADD).

This merger of the magazine’s magazine with a pioneering blog suggests a tantalizing possibility: an intelligent conversation that occurs in real time but has, for its context, larger issues than the distraction of the day. If The Atlantic is able to merge the instantaneous, interactive nature of blogs with its mastery of showcasing ideas that deserve reprint 150 years later, they may well have a product that is able to transform the national conversation. If they succeed at this, I will become a real fan. That is, instead of merely admiring the magazine, I will wear a NFL style jersey in public that, in lieu of a name like “Tomlinson” or "Manning" has “Sullivan” or fellow Atlantic editor “Fallows” written across the back.

20 January 2007

Guaranteed Super Bowl Prediction and the Design of Your Business

I've got a prediction for the Super Bowl. And it's guaranteed. Sadly, for, you, my prediction doesn’t name Saints or Patriots or Bears or Colts.

(Note that two of the teams take their names from totemic figures - drawing their strength from bears and colts as if they were ancient Celts or American Indians; the other two teams, by contrast, take their name from ideals of politics and religion. A battle between Saints and Patriots would somehow seem appropriate for the times.)

My prediction is that ONE team will win. This seems like the most obvious prediction I could make, but it is worth noting because this is by design. 32 teams started the season, a season designed to eliminate teams bit by bit until only one team is left standing.

So why mention this? Well, it is worth mentioning because this is a design issue with a predetermined outcome. Your business might have a similar design goal. It's worth noting that only in undeveloped, poorly designed countries the leader makes the most money. In nearly all Fortune 500 companies, the leader, or CEO, makes the most money. This is by design and everyone in the company knows that one person will win the "get rich working for the company" contest. This suggests a poor design. In developed, well designed countries plenty of people make more money than the leader, the president or prime minister.

What if, instead, winning within a business were more like winning in business. That is, what if your company were not designed to have the leader take home the most money? What if the top income in your company were not determined by position but by natural consequences that meant that any number of employees might make more than the leader, just as in more developed, or better designed, countries any number of citizens make more than the leader?

We don't question the fact that only one team will win the Super Bowl each year. We should question the fact that only CEOs (only one employee) will win the "make the most money" award. This is a design flaw.

19 January 2007

Barack and Conspiracy Theory Time

News flash. Barack Obama attended a Muslim madrassa in Indonesia. This is a source of great excitement among the right-wingosphere. (I've decided that I may as well add -osphere to everything - it sounds so 21st century.)

Here's the prediction about how the Barack Obama conspiracy theory will finally be spun. I can just hear Rush Limbaugh passing this along.

"Folks, I don't know if this is true or not. I don't know if the rumors about Barack Obama basically being a Manchurian candidate, a sleeper cell candidate for Muslim extremists, are true or not. I do know that these kinds of rumors make me nervous. I mean, what do we know about this guy? He was a nobody two years ago!" And like that, Obama will lose 10% in the polls. If it were property Rush were defacing he could be charged with vandalism. As it is, it's just considered politics as normal.

There are at least two really wonderful things about a conspiracy theory. One is that the lack of evidence to support it simply reinforces just how insidious and powerful is this conspiracy. And two, even though a conspiracy theory makes it sounds like the bad guys are in charge, it at least reassures people that someone is in charge. Things aren't actually unpredictable and difficult to understand.

The model of media as something that discovers facts and then reports on them is so old school. As our right-wing talk show hosts are about to show us once again, it is so much more cost-effective to just create your own facts.

Leadership, Possibility and Us Critics

Life is full of possibilities, most which we don’t even consider.

It's Friday and tonight you could read a book and enjoy it thoroughly. You could read a book but if you do you'll miss out on hitting the clubs with your friends, attending a play, watching a live concert, rock wall climbing, dining at the new tapas restaurant you've been curious about, jogging in preparation for a half-marathon scheduled for this summer, trying out that new curried chicken recipe that looked so good, starting to write your own book, mustering up the courage to contact the Toastmaster's group, begin a weight-lifting program, drive out to Las Vegas for the weekend, wander around the mall with your friend, experiment with meditation, buy a DNA kit and send in a sample for analysis and family history, make sandwiches for 20 homeless people, volunteer at a youth club, visit a .... You get the idea. For every one thing you consciously choose to do you are consciously or unconsciously choosing not to do about a million other things.

Powerful leaders have the ability to tune us in to possibilities that we had not previously, or seriously, considered.

"By the end of this decade, we will put a man on the moon and return him safely," JFK said. We are going to make a personal computer that the average person will want to use. We will make our downtown areas so safe and so stimulating that families will feel delighted to have their children go downtown at any time. We will transform people's idea of fast food into meals that make people feel more vibrant, more alive, to feel healthy.

A leader works like a radio receiver, able to pull signals out of the air, signals that the rest of us perceive only as static, and broadcast that possibility as something compelling, into a tune we can dance to. After a leader speaks, static turns into a tune we hum.

So what is our job here in the blogosphere? It is to point out to the humming masses that there are alternatives to the tune they are humming. Opportunity costs suggests that we don't just judge the book you're reading but actually consider what else you could be doing. A social critic notes that we're about to spend $1.2 trillion on the occupation of Iraq and asks what else one could buy with that sum.

Your mission, should you accept it, is to sing songs of possibility that are so compelling that leaders and the humming masses have little choice but to tune in. It's hard work, but what else were you going to do with your blog?

18 January 2007

Sounding the Alarm on Alarmism

Expectations have a huge influence over our resultant reality. If you expect that people will act rude towards you, the probability of that goes up. (You might perceive offense where others would see good-natured jesting. You may well bristle at the least provocation, triggering a series of responses that make rudeness of some form not just more probable but inevitable.) If you expect a region of the world to react like zealots, you may well get that reaction. And this scares me.

The current issue of Newsweek shows a small child in Iraq holding a weapon and states, The Next Jihadists. Right-wing talk show hosts have been blathering on about the threat of Islam with the glee that they once reserved only for Bill Clinton's libido. And now even the intelligentsia is sounding alarm bells; atheist Sam Harris, in part of his larger agenda against religion as a whole, warns that Muslims are bent on world conquest and death to non-believers.

And this is the problem with expectations: all of this is true. There are Jihadists, Islam does have recurring patterns of, or references to, violence in its scriptures, and there is plenty of evidence that some Muslims would gladly kill themselves in order to kill innocent civilians. Yet there is a difference between what is true and the whole truth, as is said in a court of law.

Our own society provides plenty of evidence of a violent streak. We are gun-toting extremists who believe that God has blessed us and our wars. Our God is the true God and we are willing to send in invading armies to make it possible for our ministers to teach non-believers in foreign land. Just as most of what the alarmists say about Islam is true, so is most of what critics of our culture and policy (people like Noam Chomsky) say is true.

Life is, at any moment, so full of possibility that our minds would be overwhelmed if we could truly perceive it all. So like a radio tuning in to a particular station, we focus on one set of possibilities and, very often, make those real. (You doubt this? Think about what you expect each day about how your day will unfold, from breakfast to commute, to work. Now think about how little difference you regularly get from that.) We see what is true but not the whole truth.
The Middle East is a place of moderates eager to modernize, temper religious extremism with tolerance, and raise their children in a peaceful place that encourages economic and scientific advances. This, too, is true and is at least as true as the alarmists’ notions that have by now hijacked the thoughts of the right and left, the reactionaries and the thoughtful. And what is so alarming about that is how often expectations steer us towards one set of possibilities.

17 January 2007

If Hemingway Wrote a Blog

Bush spoke nonsense as he looked on, feeling oddly detached from what George was saying. “Is this what it means to be un-American?” he quietly wondered. Because of the nonsense George spoke, real people died. Now, to protect himself from a guilty conscience George chooses to continue believing nonsense. I have had my fill of nonsense, he thought. I am ready for something of substance, something that does not leave the taste of fear in my mouth.

The country is divided. Some care and some do not. Many are past anger and have, in disgust, begun to write. Their words change google search results and technorati ratings but do not change policy. This too divides them. Some are distracted by the stats and rankings. Some are made angry anew. Odd that economic abundance should ultimately produce so much anger, he thought. Very odd.

Blogging is a verb that makes it sound as if the writer’s soul is dribbling down his pant leg, to form a pool on the floor between the computer and the dog. Blog. That does not sound like a tool for social change. Blog. It sits in his mouth uneasily, like a drink from a foreign country. How could so many expect so much of such an oddly constructed word? Such a vague concept? What is the point of a public diary, he wondered. Is it simply a capitulation to the collusion of technology and government to rob us of our privacy? Bloggers become distracted by stats and rankings and adsense revenues. Adsense. Rhymes with nonsense. Adsense. Nonsense. It is no wonder that souls were so quick to flee the body in this time. The steady diet of fear, anger, and greed makes souls shrink so much that they could be lost in a single cough, like a particle dislodged from the back of the throat.

Bush spoke nonsense but then again, it was one of those days when everything sounded nonsensical. Humanity faces an unknown world, strangely convinced that words can change it. They desperately cling to the notion that their talk and typing can actually improve this world. It is a naïve and childish notion, one he finds oddly endearing. As he thought about this he gradually slumped forward. Later, much later, his wife found him lying face down on his computer keyboard, the screen filled with ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh for pages.

16 January 2007

Iraq and the Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

I remember how frustrated conservatives would get talking to liberals in the 70s. "Sure it would be wonderful to end poverty," they'd say. "But the question is whether it can be done with policy."

At the time I was what you might call politically agnostic. I lurched about from Libertarian to Socialist views before settling down into what Rush Limbaugh would call a "racial liberal" and what the Europeans would call a moderate. I no longer believe that markets or governments offer one-stop panaceas.

The left began to lose their lead in politics in this country was when they stubbornly held to the pursuit of policy that was noble (e.g., ending poverty) but for which they had no real solution. That is, while a majority of voters may have agreed that their policy objectives should been pursued, they stopped believing that the Democrats could have achieved those objectives. At this point, they cashed in their idealism for practical promises.

I say all this because George and his defenders have gotten themselves trapped in the “should have” box. It almost seems irrelevant to them whether the democratization of Iraq could be done - what matters to them is that it should be done. Yet the world is full of should be done tasks (Darfur not the least among them) that are not being done. There are a variety of reasons for this but one is that policy makers don't know how they could do the task.

And perhaps this is the definition of an ideologue - someone who sees adherence to practicality as akin to selling out. And ideologues do get their followers. But the critical mass of Americans are ultimately pragmatic and are, finally, less interested in the woulda and the shoulda than the coulda.

It is, finally, not George's intentions that are going to put his political successors into the dust bin of irrelevance. Rather, it will be his refusal to acknowledge that, in the end, the success of a policy must be realized outside of the minds of voters and in the real world. That is, no matter how "should have" it is, a policy must prove that it qualifies as"could have."

The Future of Prosperity - When More is Less

A fascinating post at http://virtualeconomics.typepad.com/virtualeconomics/ leads with this:

"Jeff Jarvis is blogging from the Davos world leaders conference, finding (amongst other things) that 53% of Western Europeans think that the next generation will be less prosperous than this one. That's compared to 37% in the US, and just 14% in China."

Why the optimism gap? It could be that the West has an intuitive sense that the model we've been using for more than a century may be appropriate for a place like China but is increasingly less so in the West. China's per capita income is about 5% what it is in Western Europe or the US and Canada, making their perspective very different.

A single scoop of ice cream is nice - two can be fine ... but at some point (3? 6?) the enjoyment turns to nausea. More is nice for those who have little but after a while more becomes less desirable. Many Chinese are only now beginning to enjoy the benefits of prosperity - getting bikes, cars, stereos, and fashionable clothes for the first time. But once they have that, what is the next stage of prosperity? What happens when more is no longer better?

For decades we have confused quantity of goods with quality of life. Given that the prosperity of the last couple of centuries was the equivalent of our first scoop or two of ice cream, this confusion has not been particularly important. But now that we're facing our third or fourth scoop, it is important to make the distinction.

Our economies are still largely geared towards more, towards quantity of goods. Walk through a Costco or a landfill to see how voluminous our appetite for "goods" is. Yet these goods to have are not the only kind of goods. In fact, philosophers distinguish between goods to have and goods to do - considering the goods to do a higher good than those we have. Quality of life is related to goods to have - it is hard to imagine aspiring to a quality of life that didn't include at least some modicum of shelter, clothing, and food - much less those delightful bits of technology like laptops, mp3 players, or cell phones. Yet the marginal utility - the additional joy we get - from more goods (to have) does gradually drop. Eventually, goods (to have) simply do less to increase our quality of life.

Those in the West may well see that we're geared for getting more even as getting more has less and less impact on our quality of life. This may be the reason for the optimism gap between the West and China. Until the West has shifted its economies to more directly go after improvements in quality of life, this sense of pessimism in the West may only get worse.

15 January 2007

Castro - Propped Up by US Policy for Nearly Half a Century

Castro’s rule overlapped with that of 10 American presidents. Each has made noises about getting rid of him. Each has pursued policies that probably helped keep him in power. By embargoing Cuba, American policy has arguably helped Fidel.

It’s generally true that as wealth and income disperses, so does political power. People with money insist on having some influence over policy as well. It was the land barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Charta when he came to them in search of tax money in the 13th century. Those disenfranchised politically are almost invariably first disenfranchised economically. Poverty breeds totalitarian rule, whether it be rule by gangsters in ghettoes or dictators in third-world countries.

What does an embargo do? It stunts economic development. As a country's people remain impoverished, they have fewer resources with which to challenge the state's monopoly on power.

Fidel ruled for nearly 50 years. It just may be that he has US policy to thank for that.

Past Data and Your Potential - Martin Luther King & Race

The physical world has some wondrous characteristics. If you have two pens, one white and one black, and believe that the white pen will drop more rapidly than the black one - neither pen cares a whit for your belief. They fall as they fall and your silly belief about the importance of color has no influence over their behavior.

By contrast, the social world doesn't so neatly defy expectations. Most of you will have heard about the teachers who were told about promising and not so promising students at the beginning of the year. They were told that some students had scored very high on a test indicating potential and that they, the teachers, should show more patience with those students, do more to encourage their performance, and, quite simply, expect more. Given that others had scored poorly, the teachers should not expect as much from them. As it turns out, the predictions were accurate. The problem? The students had been divided into the two groups randomly. This kind of predetermination happens outside of the classroom as well.

If a critical mass of the community believes that you are less human, there will be plenty of evidence to support this claim. The pen is not influenced by your beliefs about its performance; the individual within a particular social milieu is greatly influenced by social beliefs. To consider the power of changing beliefs just remember that Christ referred to the adoption of new beliefs as being born again.

This is the dirty little secret that liberals won't admit: the data that supports the racist claims of books like The Bell Curve is factual. There is evidence that blacks have lower IQs, just as there is data to support lower life expectancies, lower incomes, and higher jail rates. These differences may yet prove to be genetic, but such a claim seems highly suspect. The genes that control skin pigmentation are so minimal within the arsenal of human genes that the probability of their influencing intelligence, income, and incarceration seems questionable if not absurd. The problem with past data is that it tells you nothing about future potential.

This was the genius of Martin Luther King. He spoke to latent potential. Rather than dryly citing facts about what the data suggested, King spoke to the human spirit.

I think that Jacques Barzun articulated this difference best:

“[T]he very point of emancipation … is not to give power to those who have earned the right to it, but to lift the helpless to a level where they are free to learn how to use the right.“Those who oppose freedom argue that as illiterates, as slaves, as children, they cannot manage the household, which is true though illiberal. The political history of the West has been a running battle between the ‘realistic’ deniers of one freedom after another and the generous ones who gambled on another truth, that capacity is native to all and depends only on fair conditions for its development.[1]

Martin Luther King’s appeal came from so many sources. One is the realization that our own potential is not seen in our past, regardless of our race or situation. And that is a reminder that all of us could use. Happy Martin Luther King’s Day!

[1] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 534.

13 January 2007

Neutral Press = Neutered Politicians

Blogging is merely the tip of the iceberg in a process of media fragmentation. The effect of this new model of journalism is going to significantly change politics. I'm less interested in web 2.0 than media 2.0 and what it will mean for politics.

In the old model, news pretended to be neutral. One of the flaws with operating under this guise of neutrality is that it makes the press biased towards certain stories. Scandal is a story for everyone, regardless of political persuasion, and can be reported freely without fear of seeming to have an agenda other than morality in politics. The result has a variety of consequences but the two main consequences have to do with the focus of politicians and the issues that are allowed into the national debate.

The issues allowed into the national debate are very meager. The press largely pretends to cover issues that are factual - our deficit went up, crime went down, GDP grew by 2.3%. The press does cover more controversial issues like climate change, globalization, and corporate governance but the coverage is typically about political votes and support (e.g., "Democrats oppose the president's new proposal ...") rather than engaging in reporting that takes a stance about what kind of world we'd live in with or without this legislation. The result of this is that politicians and experts find it nearly impossible to attract the attention of the press on issues that haven't already reached crisis proportions. Islamic extremism is of little import - or rarely reported - - until a tragedy like 9-11. Climate change is little reported until buildings in Alaska begin to sink as what was previously permafrost begins to thaw.

Given that the media hasn't bothered to report on issues for fear of being perceived as biased, politicians have been largely unable to push for actual policy. In lieu of policy they run focus groups to learn what sorts of key words they should use in speeches and debate. And most importantly, they run scared: scarred that their flaws should be revealed -whether through embarrassing gaps in their knowledge or zippers.

A neutral press and neutered politicians are tied together and there is a very real difference between a person focused on avoiding errors and a person focused on doing what is right. Of course, "what is right" is value-laden and we will rarely have complete agreement about its definition. But as long as the media refuses to take a stand on what is right, the media finds itself focused on libido more than policy.

One of the things so alluring about the blogosphere is that it promises an alternative to this. Bloggers focused on politics insist that their issues be taken seriously. Wherever there are people there will be interest in stories of personal flaws, but flawed people are all we ever get in politics. The real stories are not those of the inevitable peccadilloes but the stories of policy. Do you really care whether your china cabinet was made by a cheating Baptist or a faithful Buddhist? Why should something even more important than your furniture – as important as policy – be ignored because of the “facts” about the scandalous or virtuous life of its creator?

The best thing about the blogosphere and media 2.0 is that it will once again focus us on issues, values, and topics that are both sure to divide groups but, perhaps paradoxically, move them forward. A neutral press has neutered politicians and disabled the ability of communities to grapple with real issues, much less develop real strategies.

Call me an optimist, but I think that we'll look back at the politics of the period past as the equivalent of political elevator music - politics that is designed to offend no one that finally annoys everyone while avoiding any issue of substance or importance. Media 2.0 could result in politics 2.0.

The mantra for this new period? Let your soap operas be soap operas and your politics be politics.

12 January 2007

Blogging and Global Consciousness

"It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.”
UC San Diego professor V.S. Ramachandran on the "Neurology of Self-Awareness"

Some claim that through the Internet we have created a new kind of consciousness, a global self. They must be right. As I stroll through the blogosphere I find so many blogs about blogging. The catalyst may have once been to engage in a dialogue, to change the world, but the continual and seemingly inevitable distraction, towards which so many bloggers eventually flock like moths to a light, are rankings, stats, and market share. So busy looking for how to get readers they forget why they wanted them in the first place.

Blogging has become an act of chronicling blogging - a recursive act that seems certain to implode.

11 January 2007

The "Truth" Shattered by Blogs

"There are facts and there are opinions. Our news offers up facts."

This odd little myth is one perpetuated by news organizations for decades. It was an odd supposition, resting as it did on a refusal to acknowledge how important context and culture were to even the choice of topics covered. A person living in Topeka, Kansas will not only be interested in different stories than a person living in London, much less Jakarta, but will come to the topic with different referents, comparisons, and values.

There are obviously "facts" that can be reported but the story doesn't start until one overlays meaning onto those facts. Investigative reporter Douglas Foster once said, "The only objective journalism is journalism with an objective."

The blogs have shattered the notion that there is a "truth" that is reported more or less effectively by the media. Rather, there are various goals that groups have - goals as diverse as a return to the 1950's to subordinating everything to the principle of continuous disruption in technology and business. Those various goals result in very different ideas about what constitutes a story and how to tell that story. Even more, those goals turn facts into stories.

10 January 2007

The George-Free Media Network

It's time for a at least one new source- George-free Media.

Like a drunk at a dinner party waking up to insist that everyone repeat the conversation of the last hour, George has a genius for derailing progress. The Democrats are once again taking the bait, noisily reacting to his apparent madness. Ted Kennedy scuttled a speech to the National Press Club on domestic policy and instead addressed the troop surge. The Democrats are now in charge in the House and Senate, but their announcements for new policy have been drowned out. What the neocons have learned is that if they are outrageous enough in their policy pronouncements any attempt by moderates and liberals to shift the topic at all will get about as much coverage as a news conference announced by the local chapter of Neighborhood Watch.

Just about the time the family is about to serve an appetizer or entre, George insists that everyone have another round of drinks. Every time the political discussion in this country looks set to shift towards a topic of substance - climate change, minimum wage, universal health care, rising crime rates, or the best policy to respond to the reality of globalization - George announces some outrageous change (or refusal to change) in Iraq and the entire conversation is scuttled.

The only hope is to offer at least one channel, one website, one newspaper or magazine that imagines a George-free political world. This news source would cover events not forced upon it by George's pronouncements or actions. It would discuss long term policy that had a hope of making a positive impact. It would do the news equivalent of photo-shopping George out of the picture. Until we find some way of grounding George ("No addresses to the nation for three months, young man!"), this might be the best we can do.

George-free TV. George-free radio. George-free website. In the words of Louis Armstrong, What a wonderful, wonderful world.

The Punch Line for R World

The consensus coming out of the 20th century is that it is good and important to place a great deal of emphasis on technological invention and business entrepreneurship.

The consensus going into the 21st century should be that it is good and important to place an equivalent emphasis on social invention and social entrepreneurship.

Could anything be more fascinating than expecting social upgrades and innovation the way that we now expect technology upgrades and innovation?

iPhone, uPhone, We All Phone Each Other

Yesterday Steve Jobs introduced a beautiful little product, the iPhone. As with all great hardware, it immediately creates demand for appropriate software: social networking software able to find friends as cool as the phone you're now using.

09 January 2007

Two Reasons to Pull Out of Iraq

By the time you read this, George will have announced his intention to send another 20,000+ troops into Iraq. Here are two reasons to resist this that you are unlikely to read in the mainstream media.

1. Climate change.
The first reason to pull out of Iraq is that spending there makes it difficult to afford research into alternative energy. As long as we're spending $100 billion a year in Iraq, we can't afford a serious program to transform our energy policy. We need the equivalent of a NASA program - billions of dollars in funding - to support an array of solutions to the problem of carbon dioxide build up. Just to stabilize carbon dioxide levels - not even reduce them - we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 75% across the globe. This is not going to happen without serious investment in creative solutions. As long as we are pumping $100 billion a year into Iraq (a soon to be greater number, presumably, as Bush gets his surge in troop levels), funding for such programs is unlikely to emerge. This alone is reason enough to stop funding the aggravation of Iraqis and continuing to place our troops in harm's way as if they were the ducks at a shooting gallery, but there is another.

2. Terrorism.
Oil money from developed countries helps undeveloped countries to get money without modernizing. Our dependence on oil finances extremists in the Middle East, effectively subsidizing their refusal to modernize. Islam does encourage violent extremism, as did medieval Christianity. There is, however, one really big difference between the two. Christians could not enjoy economic advance without choosing to ignore traditions and teachings that contradicted progress. That is, they had to generate their own source of economic progress and fostering economic modernity required accepting philosophical modernity. Burning witches is one way to attempt an increase in crop yield, but it won't be as effective as adopting steel plows or fertilizer. The communities that cling to superstition about witches are going to have so little in resources in comparison to the communities that adopt the scientific method that those superstitious communities will be of little threat. Primitive communities may have dangerous philosophies, but their technology will not be dangerous. By contrast, Muslim states sitting atop of oil can cling to dangerous philosophies while earning enough income to finance dangerous technology. (Think of Iran and its nuclear program.) If they did not have oil revenues, they would face two paths: cling to religious authority in lieu of modernity and be of little threat because they would not have the resources or technology to become a threat; or modernize in thought and, consequently, technology and be of little threat because they now rely upon reason instead of religious extremism. As it is, they can refuse to modernize even while buying modern weaponry.

As long as we don’t sever our dependence on oil, we don’t force the Middle East to sever its dependence on religious extremism. Our continued reliance on oil effectively subsidizes the Middle East's continued reliance upon outdated, dangerous, and otherwise bankrupting ideologies.

The biggest problem with continuing to pursue an Iraqi policy that has yet to accomplish any of its stated goals? It continues to distract us from real issues, only two of which are listed above.

Political Primer: Institutions and Reactionaries, Conservatives, Liberals & Radicals

It helps me to understand politics from the perspective of institutions. I would argue that all political struggle has to do with what we institutionalize or not. From that perspective, here's a way to look at four groups: reactionaries, conservatives, liberals, and radicals. I'll use the church in the 16 to 18th century to illustrate each group.

Reactionaries felt that things had gone badly because society had strayed from the true church. For them, the Inquisition and the return to theocratic rule over wayward kings and princes would help to restore social order. Burn a few witches and philosophers to appease God and all would again be well.

Conservatives wanted to preserve the church but not necessarily return to its early state of complete illiteracy and crackdown on science and witches. They were quite happy with the church as the dominant institution but still saw a role for stronger states, and a modicum of commerce and science - just not any commerce (e.g., charging usury) or science (e.g., notions like the earth circling around the sun) that contradicted church teachings. Further, they didn't particularly trust the masses, preferring to see the power of the church retained in the hands of the elite (e.g., the pope).

Liberals wanted to transform the church, make it subordinate to the state. Put it in its place and it would no longer be a catalyst for killings or archaic practices in regards to business and commerce. And they wanted to disperse the power of the church, not trusting the elites and preferring the misjudgment of the masses to the abuse of power by the elites, best represented by Luther's cry: "we are all priests."

Radicals, finally, wanted to do away with the church, seeing it as a source of evil with a history of oppression, forcing Europeans to live in ignorance and squalor.

Four groups, each defined by their relationship to the dominant institution. Reactionaries wanting to return to a time when the institution in transition returned to its previously clear domination and clear rule by elites; conservatives wanting to stop change and maintain order by maintaining power among the elites; liberals wanting to encourage a dispersion of power outwards and to subordinate the institution to the community; and, finally, radicals who simply wanted to be rid of this anchor to the past, feeling that along with its domination, its reason for being had passed.

This perspective has helped me, a liberal, to understand American politics of today. The conservative movement is really a coalition, all wanting to preserve the power of the dominant institution; where they break down is in their agreement about which institution is (or should be) dominant. One sector, the social conservatives, seems to believe that the church is the institution that should be protected in its earlier (or at least current) form, decrying attacks to its authority and pronouncements on social standards. Another sector, the patriots, seems to believe that the state is the institution that should be protected in its earlier form of powerful military and high-waving flag. Finally, the business conservatives seem to believe that what needs defending is the American way of life as exercised through its corporations. All share in common a notion that the institutions need defending from the individual.

By contrast, the liberal seems to believe that the individual needs protecting from the institution. Perhaps the simplest way to see this contrast is in the issue of crime or welfare. The conservative is afraid that the individual will abuse the institution, cheating the state of money that he or she doesn't deserve, or abusing rights. The liberal is afraid that the institution will abuse the individual, ignoring his or her needs and rights.

It seems as though the real question is whether we're prepared to adopt fluent and changing institutions in order to accommodate individuals or whether we're planning to force individuals to conform to institutions. It's always a dance and any society needs to do both. The question is, Who is leading?

Some reading this would say that American conservatives actually want to shift more power to the individual and less to the institution. That, of course, depends on what one accepts as the dominant institution. Many conservatives want less state intervention, less state power, but the reason for that is because they trust markets and corporations more than they trust elections and governments. For them, the underdog is the corporation and the dominant institution is the state. But if the corporation has become the dominant institution, then the definition of conservative applies as it does in the example of the church: conservatives want to maintain the power of the corporation, allowing it to work with fewer encumbrances, regulations, and taxes. And, to complete the picture, they are perfectly content with the status quo of powerful elites running those corporations, a privileged few who get disproportionate benefits.

The alignment that would be very powerful is the alignment between liberals of every sector. By the definition given, many “conservatives” are actually liberals in terms of church, state, and even bank but are truly conservatives only in the matter of the corporation. If they were to see the parallels between these institutions, see how one constant through the history and progress of Western Civilization is the diffusion of power from elites to the many, they could likely be persuaded to consider a more liberal view of the corporation, working for reforms that would match the power over corporations with the composition of owners (via both equity capital as represented by stock and intellectual capital as represented by employee involvement).

Liberals who have reversed themselves in terms of state power, seeing a strong state as the one viable option for countering a strong corporation, might also find a common ground with conservatives within this perspective. The point is not to tradeoff power between corporations and governments; the one leads to abuses that lines the pockets of politicians and the other to abuses that lines the pockets of senior executives. Better to diffuse power to the grassroots in every forum, subordinating these institutions to the community rather than vice versa.

We have before us a possibility for a period of enormous social innovation – a period of history when society becomes as pliable as our technology. Accomplishing this will require a myriad of changes. One change that is essential is that we all become liberals, forcing our institutions to emerge, disappear and change as best suits individual and community goals.

How to Make a Trillion Dollars: Dee Hock, Systems Thinking & Modern Management

One of the proponents of systems thinking is Dee Hock (although he calls it by a more interesting name, one that reflects how he has customized many of the notions and principles of systems thinking: chaordic, a state on the border of chaos and order). You probably don't know his name but you should. It is yet another thing that baffles me about the modern world: so many people know of Bill Gates and Jack Welch and so few know about Robert Beyster and Dee Hock. (Beyster I'll save for another story.)

Dee Hock was the first CEO for a company that has now passed $1 trillion in sales. That's right. $1 trillion. The company is VISA and it represents Hock's attempt to fundamentally rethink the foundational notions of an organization. Before going into that, I'd like to speak briefly about what he was up against, as it was nothing less than the dominant and pervasive intellectual perspective of the 20th century.

Pragmatism is today's dominant perspective. This matters because it is this that the systems thinking proponent finds himself up against. A pragmatist (as most every manager and employee is) will want to know the answer to how. "How do I do this?" It is no coincidence that pragmatism’s creation and popularization has followed the creation and rise of the modern knowledge worker, a sea of experts who make their living because they know how to diagnosis an X-ray, write computer code, or negotiate legal contracts. A pragmatist looks at how to make it through the obstacle course more quickly; a systems thinker challenges the design of the obstacle course, wondering why it should be so difficult to navigate if, indeed, the goal is to reduce time. One doesn't get to trillion in sales by simply performing better inside of a million dollar company.

Back to systems thinking and Dee Hock. What Hock really did was create two things. One, he understood that money was, ultimately, a measure and symbol of exchange. Its natural evolution from sea shells to gold to fiat currency was to finally take the form of blips and bytes on a computer. The credit card was a perfect medium for this. Secondly, Hock created an ecosystem. He knew that any card that gained acceptance had to simultaneously be accepted by banks, merchants, and consumers. And yet no one party would accept a card that the other two parties had not accepted. Hock didn't tell banks how they could sign up households. Rather, he created a set of fairly minimal rules that allowed players within this context to perform. Dee Hock was not so much a Willie Mays or even Sparky Anderson. Rather, he was Abner Doubleday - inventing the game rather than telling people how to play or even playing himself. In this alone he could stand as an archetype of systems thinking.

YouTube recently sold for $1.65 billion. Those founders did not create content, generating millions of hours of video. That would have been as impossible as Dee Hock's quest to make a trillion in loans or sales. Rather, the YouTube founders created a context in which people can voluntarily create and distribute content, just as the sea of bankers who minute by minute grant loan approvals to consumers within the ecosystem Dee Hock helped to create.

There is so much to say about the distinction between pragmatism and systems thinking, but I will limit myself to this observation. A manager asks "how" will I get this done. An entrepreneur asks, "who" will I need to get this done? A pragmatist focuses on problem solving and making something work. A systems thinker focuses instead on creating a context (like Hock's credit card ecosystem or YouTube's site) that encourages participation and natural consequences for individual imitative and actions.

How does systems thinking change anything if it doesn’t directly address the question of how, leaving that instead to the pragmatists and players who will inevitably show up? As it is gradually adopted as a worldview, replacing pragmatism as pragmatism replaced Enlightenment philosophy before it, systems thinking will change the context of how we frame our world, articulate problems, and choose goals. How will systems thinking change anything? By changing the context and rules of the game, it will, eventually, change everything.

08 January 2007

Why Bush's New Iraqi Policy is Doomed to Failure

Wednesday, Bush is scheduled to announce a new policy. It sounds as though it'll focus on a surge in troop levels. Like so much of what he's done in Iraq, one can almost take his pick of reasons why this won't work. I will focus on the one reason most oddly passed over in the analysis and reporting I've seen.

The problem in Iraq is not a military problem. We have more military might than the opposition. The problem in Iraq is a social and political problem. The society has turned against us and there is no stable and convincing political center from which to formulate a coherent response to "the insurgency." The political forces within Iraq are not aligned to a nation-state. They are more tribal than national. And the rational response of individuals within this mileu is to align behind tribes or militias. And yet the rational thing for the individual is, of course, sadly and spectacularly irrational for the nation as a whole.

Bush has seemingly never taken the time to understand how the social dynamics of Iraq might differ from, say, the social dynamics of Switzerland. As long as he continues to think that what he faces is a military problem, he'll be unable to address this social / political problem. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but George's incuriosity about the peculiarities of social evolution and dynamics has killed thousands - with death tolls for Iraqi civilians and American soldiers rising in the last half of 2006. Like a Greek tragedy that traces its origins back to a character flaw, Iraq may become a warning about the dangers of making life and death decisions about topics for which one has no natural interest.

A New Major for a New Generation

Last night my daughter told me what her first class was today, on this the first day of a new quarter at UC San Diego. For a couple of seconds, I could have sworn that she said "sushi-ology" rather than sociology. And as I thought about it, it seemed like a perfect major for this generation, raised on California Rolls and Miso soup.

Broke Your New's Year Resolution? You Need This!

This month, millions of earthlings will break a New Year's resolution. If you are one of those folks, you may find the following quote handy. Frances Fragos Townsend, a Bush homeland-security adviser, was asked about whether the fact that the U.S. government has not found Osama bin Laden should be termed a failure. Her response?

"It's a success that hasn't occurred yet."

There. You have my permission to use this quote to justify the "breaking" of any New Year's resolution. Haven't stopped chewing your nails? "It's a success that hasn't occurred yet." Still smoking? "It's a success that hasn't occurred yet." Haven't yet quit your job to start that business. "It's a success that hasn't occurred yet."

Now just this one last question. If your New Year's resolution is to break your New Year's resolution and you do, have you actually broken your New Year's resolution?

[quote courtesy of January 8 2006 version of Newsweek.]

07 January 2007

Be Rupert Murdoch for only $5,000

The Gutenberg Press, arguably the first tool of mass communication, was invented in about 1440. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1452, becoming the first volume produced book. (It's worth remembering that in Medieval Times it was a capital offense to have a Bible written in one's native language.) In 1517 - about 77 years after the Gutenberg Press was invented, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, effectively igniting the first flames of the Protestant Revolution. In 1531, Henry VIII broke with Rome and made himself the head of the Church of England and by 1540, he had seized church land.

100 years from the time this tool of mass communication was invented to the time that it had effectively transformed the church and state - helping to transition power from the dominant institution of the church to newly dominant institution of the state and in the process forever changing the nature of the church in the West. By making the Bible available in private homes, it effectively helped to make real Martin Luther's declaration "We are all priests!" Power of the church was diffused and every part of life was impacted.

In 1989, Vincent Cerf made public his work that he'd been doing for the government that allowed computers to exchange email and for a person on one computer to remotely access anothe computer. (People tend to say that they "surf" the Internet as if they were riding waves. They really ought to be saying that they "cerf" the Internet in honor of the man who developed the technology they are using.) It has been only 18 years since the inception of the Internet, a technology that is arguably to our time what the Gutenberg Press was to its time. The Gutenberg Press transformed the church - that period's dominant institution. I predict that the Internet will transform the corporation - our dominant institution. And along the way, it will transform media.

One of the more fascinating steps in that transformation is a recent product by NewTek that effectively enables any person with $5,000 to create his or her own TV studio. You can learn more by clicking here:

or read the excerpt of the report here: [start of excerpt]

In the new age of the net…anyone can become a TV network. Bloomberg Boot Camp, a report on today’s technology. Time Magazine took note….naming you…the person of the year in 2006. You meaning the millions of people who contributing content to the Web…through YouTube and other sites. Can you really compete with the TV networks?

A company called NewTek has built a ten pound box called the TriCaster…..that is essentially a self contained studio…that plugs into the Internet.

CEO Jim Plant … “It allows you to connect multiple cameras and do everything you do in a live studio…the graphics...the rolling in the tape… multiple cameras…live digital video effects… all those things that are the hallmark of a live production… you can now do that in a ten pound box. And also we can connect this to the Internet. So we can live stream that…that multi camera production… all in real time.” It essentially…is a specialized high end PC. The price…about five thousand dollars. It works so well…some professionals…such as ESPN Radio have been using it.

About the future…Plant says think YouTube…but think live… "And the Internet now has enough bandwidth to make that possible. That’s the distribution side of it. Now we come in on the production side and make sure that what you put out on the air…and I use on the air in quotations…looks like a professional broadcast. Because that does make a difference.” ------- [End of article]

Just think about how this could revolutionize media. Suddenly, you can be Rupert Murdoch. The Gutenberg Press was instrumental in dispersing power to the individual. Now, NewTek's TriCaster has become another revolutionary product. And I do mean revolutionary. Like Gutenberg's Press, the TriCaster disperses power from the elites to you. Even if you choose not to be a mini-Murdoch, you have to agree that this is a fascinating time to be alive.

[Full disclosure: NewTek CEO Jim Plant was a good buddy in junior high and my freshman year of high school. We were on a Little League Team together. So, you are free to dismiss the above as biased ... but if you do, you may well miss out on one of the most amazing developments of the next few years.]

06 January 2007

David Geffen and The Future of Media

Rumors suggest that David Geffen might buy the LA Times. [http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?menuID=2&subID=1078] If he does, he could bring to it much more than his net worth of $4.4 billion. He could bring a proven model into a new arena, transforming the world of news media for the better.

Who is David Geffen? Geffen dropped out of college and eventually got a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. Legend has it that he got his start rather ignominiously. He applied for a promotion to agent and included on his resume mention of his degree from the University of Texas at Austin. When the letter stating that he'd dropped out came through the mail room, he intercepted it, changed it, and was soon hired as an agent. He later formed Asylum Records in 1971 and signed greats like Jackson Browne and Linda Rondstadt. He since co-founded Dreamworks with Spielberg and Katzenberg.

During his career in music, he has signed artists like John Lennon, Nirvana, Neil Young, and Weezer. As a music nerd, I envy this proximity to genius more than I envy his ability to buy and sell art pieces for $140 million. And in this role, Geffen may have defined a model that the news media desperately needs.

Fewer people have heard of Geffen Records than have heard of John Lennon or Nirvana, Cher or Aerosmith. Yet if you bought an album by these artists, you bought from David Geffen. (Okay, not all of their albums, but the point is the same.) By contrast, in the old model of the newspaper business you buy a copy of the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. You don't buy an article from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh or opinion piece by Paul Krugman. These are two very different models and if Geffen applies his old music industry model to this new era of newspapers, he could transform the media for good.

Think about a music industry model similar to the model for newspapers. Everyday, everyone listens to the same music - whatever is broadcast by the daily paper, er, I mean daily music. Think about how bland the music would necessarily be if it were forced to appeal to a broad and diverse group. Many people would conclude, listening to the elevator music that regularly gets played, that they just didn't like music.

One of the reasons that we love music is that it comes in such variety. Los Lobos plays music and so does Glen Gould and Theolonius Monk and The Roots. But the music they create is very different. And the consumption of music is not consumption of, say, Warner Brothers or Geffen Records. That is incidental. People have a passion for the music of, say, Van Morrison or Emmylou Harris and may not even know what label represents them. They don't buy the label - they buy the artist. Taking this perspective could make a huge difference for the news media.

There are two fundamental forces that would be at Geffen's back should he move in this direction. One is the force of diversity. Malcolm Gladwell has a great piece (look at talks at ted.com) about pasta sauce. His point? As long as Ragu and Prego clung to the model of one perfect pasta sauce, they were missing a huge market. Once Prego realized that there were different schools of great pasta sauce (chunky or cheesy or traditional or garlic perhaps being akin to rock, soft jazz, calypso, or rap), and made a variety of sauces, Prego's sales grew by $600 million! The other force is the force of the Internet. It is now possible for media to create and present forms of music, or news and opinion that appeal to different markets for relatively little. Publishing costs have plummeted via the Internet, suggesting that the marginal cost of increased diversity is dropping rapidly (ala Chris Anderson's argument in The Long Tail). It is perhaps this that the blogosphere has most signaled with its plethora of strong opinions and niche discussion groups.

The diversity of products that the LA Times could create may be centered on particular news personalities like Paul Krugman, Michael Kinsley, Greg Easterbrook or Barbara Ehrenreich. There is, obviously, quite a bit of this kind of thing going on already in media. The other thing that the LA Times could do is recognize that the "news" is based less on facts than the interpretation of them - and that interpretation is a function of culture and worldview. If this point has not already been made by the diversity of magazines, it must surely be clear from the diversity of blogs and websites. Not even facts are generic - worldview determines both the how the news gets reported and, more importantly, what news gets reported. If the LA Times could do the equivalent of what Prego did and identify various cultures, creating a different product for each one (the equivalent of LA Times Chunky in the form of LA Times Americana or LA Times Beatnik or LA Times Whole Earth or LA Times Family), they could easily reverse the erosion in newspaper sales and create a base from which to launch a multimedia conglomerate that spilled across the web, newsstands, TV, radio, and magazine racks.

Finally, I have to confess that I'm inclined to be impressed by anything done by a guy who said this, one of my favorite quotes:

“I think we are all figments of our own imagination. We invent ourselves. We have a vision of ourselves and its takes us where it will take us. There may be a normal course for doing ordinary things, but there’s no normal course for doing extraordinary things. Very often your destiny is beyond your ability to imagine it.”
- David Geffen

When you think like that, it's easy to belive that you might transform an industry.
P. S. - the bid is no longer rumored - Geffen has reportedly bid $2 billion for the LA Times. The rumor has become real - it'll take a bit longer to see whether the analysis will.

05 January 2007

It's '007and I've got a license to blog

The other day a good buddy of mine, a conservative, suggested in an email that my recent blog comments about the president and his policy towards Iran had seemed rather egregious. He's right. I did not make the attempt that the writer of an Atlantic Magazine article might make to been evenhanded, to consider the facts, to show respect to each side of the argument or respect the office of the president. And as much as I love The Atlantic for that very reason, I think that this blogging liberty is great because I don't have that burden.

A boat can be splendid. It may be beautifully designed, well crafted, based on sound principles - but it can still have a hole in it. In this case, the policy of saber-rattling towards Iran is simply unsound. We can't even conduct one war and occupation and Bush thinks that we can credibly threaten (or worse - actually attempt) to invade Iran? This is simple nonsense and the facts about Iran's threat, their movement towards nuclear weaponry, etc., are all tangential to this simple fact. I could talk about the great aspects of the boat, but it seems that the most important feature of the boat to those about to board is the hole. You don’t write an essay about a hole in a boat. You quickly point it out, shouting if you have to. I felt that way about the nonsensical noise suggesting that the Pentagon was making preparations to attack Iran.

And that is the beauty of blogs. Unlike the columnists in DC and New York, we are unlikely to censor our comments because we're afraid of an awkward moment at the country club or because we're afraid that we'll offend someone we need to interview for a future story. We have no vested interest. This allows a certain freedom to comment, unhindered by a plethora of facts and analysis, sure, but also unhindered by the need to take time making points that are ultimately irrelevant. Bloggers are free to get to the heart of an issue as we see it. We know that Howard Dean, George Bush, and Tony Blair were never going to talk to us anyway, so we’ve no fear of offending them or even pointing out how unnecessarily pompous the mainstream media have gotten, shaking our heads at how seriously people like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs take themselves. We’ve learned a little secret – these political and media celebrities haven’t actually got any exclusive on insight or analysis. And sometimes knowing a great deal about boats is irrelevant if you fail (or refuse) to notice the hole in the boat.

Perhaps no technology better allows the individual to realize the right to freedom of speech than blogging. Freedom of speech meant something in a small burg of, say, 300 when everyone knew and could hear one another. Freedom of speech is fairly meaningless in a community of 300 million. Fairly meaningless, that is, until blogging. We now have a means to express ourselves to as many people as we can attract the attention of – and all without the need for editorial or political approval.

It's the year '007 and I've got a license to blog. And so do you.

04 January 2007

Systems Thinking and the Corporation

I believe that systems thinking will be as tranformative of today's dominant institution (the corporation) as the Enlightenment was to that generation's dominant institution (the nation-state).

If you want a few great examples of real world success stories that stem from systems thinking, look at http://ceu-bse-fall2006.blogspot.com/

He points to how Toyota has so outdistanced its competitors through the use of systems thinking and how WalMart and Proctor and Gamble used systems thinking to both grow even more rapidly. Good and interesting stuff.

Here's an excerpt:
"What Toyota has so successfully done over 50 years is employ what Amory Lovins calls 'optimizing whole systems' rather than isolated parts of the system. By doing this Toyota will not only become the largest car maker in the world next year, they will also have annual profits and a market capitalization bigger than their next five competitors combined. And they are also the leading automaker in terms of environmental performance." [italics added]

Representative Keith Ellison and His 1 Billion Informal Constituents

It seems as though we have a few choices in dealing with the Muslims who share the planet with us:
1. Send Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, around the world to convince them all to become atheists.
2. Send Pat Robertson around the world to convert them to Christianity (in which case Sam Harris may feel compelled to follow him around to convert them to ... well you get the point).
3. Try to convert the Islam-a-phobics in the West into becoming warm and friendly neighbors with their fellow Muslims.
4. Stop with the conversion fantasies and continue to focus on creating a further web of interdependency and familiarity through increased levels of trade.

Government Secrecy

I have a simple equation for good government. A good government is very transparent and allows individual citizens privacy. A bad government reveals very little about its decisions and operations and can peer into the lives of its citizenry at will. (Think USSR or Orwell's 1984.)

This graph suggests that our government is getting worse, not better.

[Yellow line is the number of classified government documents and the blue line is the number of documents being declassified.]

03 January 2007

Nardelli at Home Depot (HD): One Third of a Billion in Pay for Losing $1 Billion a Year

Home Depot's (HD) CEO Nardelli left the company today. One of the big reasons? Stockholders thought his pay (about $124 million in six years) was too high given the performance of HD stock, which dropped about 5.6% under his tenure. Given Home Depot's market capitalization, he lost about $1 billion a year. His severance pay, triggered by his high pay, is $210 million. So, he gets total pay of about one third of a billion dollars for destroying about $5 billion in stock value. Amazing. I have no doub that Nardelli has above average ability in terms of negotiation and his mastery of the alpha male dynamics. What I (and most everyone probably) doubts is his ability to actually create wealth.

The CEO is the last of the monarchs. Whatever your beef with George W. Bush (and readers of this blog know I have plenty), he puts up with plenty of criticism from his own citizenry and press. By contrast, CEOs get almost no criticism from within their own companies. To speak out against a CEO in the same way that, say, Paul Krugman speaks out against George Bush would ensure a loss of citizenship, I mean employment.

The corporation has risen to great power. I would argue that it is today's dominant institution. But the power structure within the corporation is dated, echoing the power structure of medieval popes or Renaissance kings.

One of the biggest problems with the modern corporation is that it is now owned by the likes of me and you. Peter Drucker seemed to have been the lone voice pointing out that a silent revolution had taken place in recent decades: suddenly the biggest owners of stocks were common employees who held equity through mutual and retirement funds. Yet even though we own these stocks, we don't have a mechanism for influencing policy. CEOs still have disproportionate power over corporate policy.

If a CEO actually influences stock price enough to justify pay of a third of a billion in five years, he is simply exercising too much power, playing the autocrat far too much. A Renaissance king was easily the richest man in the kingdom. Today's presidents are rarely in the list of the top one hundred wealthiest. We'll know that the corporation has adopted a more sensible power structure when the top paid employees within a corporation are only rarely, rather than inevitably, the CEO. It's time for corporate revolution.

02 January 2007

Minimum Wage Boost

Minimum wage went up for California. If the Dems in the House and Senate have their way, it will soon rise across the nation.

Some members of the business community are once again bleating about how this simply won't work. Yet the truth about business is that there are so many variables that could be tweaked that management only tweaks a few at a time. When government regulators say it is important to, say, complete paperwork for drug approval, they manage to complete the paperwork. When the government makes them, say, pay their minimum wage employees fifty cents more per hour they comply. If they didn't have to complete the paperwork or pay their minimum wage employees more, they wouldn't.

Imagine the alternative to a minimum wage. What if the lowest-paid workers in the United States were paid no more than the lowest-paid workers across the world - workers who miraculously make it on $1 a day? Markets really don't care whether they pay workers 15 cents a day or 15 million a day, but communities don't have to show such callous disregard for the real needs of real people. There is no miracle equation that ensures that the least productive worker will just happen to make enough to buy food, clothing, and shelter. Management has many competing priorities and is unlikely to just spontaneously decide that of all those possibilities they will make raising the productivity and wages of their least productive workers the most important. Unlikely, that is, without regulatory compulsion.

Markets are great mechanisms but aren't any more prone to perfect solutions than are regulators. No one wants to buy a car that steers only right or left. Communities shouldn't rely only on regulation or markets; our least productive shouldn't rely on businesses raising wages out of boredom or sense of altruism.