31 December 2008

30 December 2008

Dick - Still Clueless, Still Convicted (But Sadly Not a Convict)

Dick Cheney is about to leave office. In spite of whatever worries you have about 2009, this single fact ought to be enough to buoy your spirits about the new year.

Dick Cheney - for all his egregious violations of protocol, decency, and the constitution - has skated through his 8 years in office with a minimum of media reprimand or screed. How much, for instance, did you ever hear about Cheney's stock options with Halliburton and how his personal returns soared into the thousands of percent as a result of Halliburton's no-bid contracts from the Bush - Cheney administration? In a media that feeds on scandal the way vultures feed on road kill, Cheney's moral decay was oddly passed over.

Cheney casually asserts that the president can start war without Congressional consent, (even if the war is with a concept like terrorism) and once engaged in war can suspend any laws (again, without Congressional consent). More than that, the president can launch nuclear attack without consenting with anyone.

Cheney's vision of the presidency is not that of a normal dictator, whose rule would extend without question across a mere country only. No, Cheney's president as dictator is of an emperor of the free world - able to end laws and life without challenge.

I suspect that Cheney's insistence on attacking Saddam was motivated by envy as much as perceived threat; no one questioned Saddam within the country and Cheney's reach for power has been coupled with a near refusal to explain himself. Although the man has never distinguished himself with any notable intelligence or wisdom, he feels as though he is a superior to the 300+ million Americans for whom he works and simply does not have to engage the rest of us in any kind of conversation. This is not our country - we have, in his mind, turned it over to George and him for the 8 years.

It still baffles me that George and Dick are leaving office with no worse penalty than record low approval ratings. But I'll let go of that for now. The real point is that they are leaving office. And that is reason enough to welcome 2009.

27 December 2008

Just wondering aloud about the rugged individual's chance at love

Poets, mystics, and romantics talk about love as a loss of self, a transcendence of the ego.

On Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions measure, the US has the highest Individualism ranking in the world.

The US also has the highest divorce rate in the world.

Just wondering about a connection. That's all. I have nothing more to add.

Required Reading for the Obama Cabinet

Dietrich Dorner's The Logic of Failure makes points that escape some policy makers, lessons Dorner draws from systems simulations. Taken to heart, the following lessons might be enough to keep Obama's administration from the mistakes of Bush. Dorner's book - or at least these very succinct excerpts from it - ought to be required reading for Obama's Cabinet.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could move beyond the "policy as an article of faith" phase of politics?
Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effects high taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale would have. The good participants differed from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated truths.

Catastrophes of just the last few years include Katrina and the 2008 credit crisis.
One basic error accounts for all the catastrophes: none of the participants realized that they were dealing with a system in which, though not every element interacted with every other, many elements interacted with many others. The conceived of their task as dealing with a sequence of problems that had to be solved one at a time. They did not take into account the side effects and repercussions of certain measure. They dealt with the entire system, not as a system but as a bundle of independent minisystems. And dealing with systems this way breeds trouble: if we do not concern ourselves with the problems we do not have, we soon have them.
"Catastrophes" seem to hit suddenly, but in reality the way has been prepared for them. Unperceived forces gradually eat away at the supports necessary for favorable development until the system is finally unable to resist any longer and collapses.

A leader ought to provide a narrative that is bigger than the moment, that provides more context than the urgency or false calm of the immediate situation.
The information a newspaper-reading citizen receives about economic developments or the spread of epidemics, for example, lacks both continuity and constant correctives. Information comes in isolated fragments. We can assume that those conditions make it considerably more difficult to develop an adequate picture of developments over time.

No amount of planning can compensate for the dispersion of control with a shared goal. Bush's discipline to keep all staff on message was probably just one more thing that worked against him.
We would do better to follow the advice of Napoleon, whose motto for such situations was, "On s'engage et puis on voit!" (Freely translated, "One jumps into the fray, then figures out what to do next.")
In very complex and quickly changing situations the most reasonable strategy is to plan only in rough outlines and to delegate as many decisions as possible to subordinates. these subordinates will need considerable independence and a thorough understanding of the overall plan. Such strategies require a "redundancy of potential command," that is, many individuals who are all capable of carrying out leadership tasks within the context of the general directives.

It is not enough to state standard platitudes as goals. Meaningless might help with political speeches, but it makes policy formulation difficult.
Bad participants simply compiled laundry lists of goals without providing operative principles for achieving them, and they made no distinction between primary and secondary measures. The bad participants provided a "jumble," not an "organized set" or measures.

Remember how much grief the neo-cons managed to create for Kerry because he simply used nuanced language that suggested that he understood the complexity of a situation?
Thomas Roth used results from a planning game to identify characteristics of good problem solvers. Roth studied the language that good and bad participants used while engaged in a simulation game called "Tailor Shop." The task was to manage a small plant that manufactured clothing. Using records of what the participants said as they thought out loud during the experiment, Roth studied the nature of their problem-solving language.
Roth found that the bad problem solvers tended to use unqualified expressions: constantly, every time, all, without exception, absolutely, entirely, completely totally, unequivocally, undeniably, without question, certainly, solely, nothing, nothing further, only, neither ... nor, must, and have to.
The good problem solvers, on the other hand, tended more toward qualified expressions: now and then, in general, sometimes, ordinarily, often, a bit, in particular, somewhat, specifically, especially, to some degree, perhaps, conceivable, questionable, among other things, on the other hand, also, moreover, may, can, and be in a position to.
It is obvious from these two lists that the good problem solvers favored expressions that take circumstances and exceptions into account, that stress main points but don't ignore subordinate ones, and that suggest possibilities. By contrast, the bad problem solvers used "absolute" concepts that do not admit of other possibilities or circumstances.

"History will be my judge" is a wonderful punt on self reflection and trying to understand the consequences of choices.
The desire to check on efficacy seems to increase but never assumes major propositions. That is odd because we would expect that rational people faced with a system they cannot fully understand would seize every chance to learn more about it and would therefore behave "nonballistically." For the most part, however, the experiment participants did not do that. They shot off their decision like cannonballs and gave hardly a second thought to where those cannonballs might land.
Strange, we think. But an explanation is readily available. If we never look at the consequences of our behavior, we can always maintain the illusion of our competence. If we make a decision to correct a deficiency and then never check on the consequences of that decision, we can believe that the deficiency has been corrected. We can turn to new problems. Ballistic behavior has the great advantage of relieving us of all accountability.
The less clear a situation is, the more likely we are to prop up our illusion of competence with ballistic behavior. Such behavior reduces our sense of confusion and increases our faith in our own capabilities.

23 December 2008

2009 Predictions That Are Safer Than a SubPrime Mortgage

It seems only proper that a blogger predict the future. I mean, what are you paying for if not some reassurance that 2009 will be different from 2008?

So, here is my attempt to write the news stories before they become news. Let me be the first to welcome you to 2009.

June 11 (RW) Internet pioneer Leland Vaughn succeeded in sending himself through the Internet. The full appreciation for this momentous feat was somewhat muted by the time it took for this inaugural full body download. During the three years it took Leland to be fully downloaded into his fiancĂ©’s living room, she married and gave birth to a child. The little family was “shocked and horrified” when Leland was finally, unceremoniously dumped onto their living room floor.

On a positive note, a great number of Wikipedia entries seemed to have gotten tangled up in Leland’s memory, although his eager attempt to share tidbits such as the ability of the crown cardinals of Austria, France, and Spain to veto papal appointments from the 16th to 20th centuries failed to calm his ex- fiancĂ©’s new husband. Given that the tidbits downloaded into his consciousness during this time seemed random, Leland has lost all sense of time – his memory of the 3 years during which he was in transit are a curious mixture of ancient and modern history and current events based on what scientists are now calling proximate virtual memory events, or data nuggets that were co-mingled with his digital ghost.

September 17 (RW) Unfortunate cookies become popular. Fortune cookies give vague promises about the future, whereas unfortunate cookies offer vaguely worded consolations for past injustice. “You have every right to feel slighted by your in-laws; they should have been more impressed.” Or, “In spite of your grade school’s teacher’s reassurances to the contrary, her punishment was excessive.”

Although wildly popular, these unfortunate cookies have created a new, awkward dating situation: first dates that break into tears after breaking their unfortunate cookie to suddenly find themselves consoled for an injustice that has been haunting them for years.

November 11 (RW) Groovy makes a comeback in the American vernacular.

March 16 (RW) Iceland succumbs to a takeover bid from Citibank. Pundits are divided as to whether this transforms finance or politics. Cynics claim that it just formalizes the old arrangement between the two.

June 9 (RW) Budget cuts and a weakening economy lead to the first genuine innovation in education since kindergarten: the 3 year Bachelor’s degree. By reducing education costs by 25%, this move brings college education within reach of millions more Americans.

October 14 (RW) Universities around the nation are issuing recall notices to graduates, ordering them back for additional courses or risk losing their degree. This move is seen by some as a desperate attempt to replace revenues lost by cuts in government spending and the sudden popularity of 3 year Bachelor degrees.

April 19 (RW) Bionic limbs are suddenly the most obvious and popular of the new solutions to the transportation problem. Rather than move 3,000 pound vehicles in order to transport 160 pound people, the limbs will add only a few pounds to the total person weight and create less congestion on roadways while dramatically lowering annual fuel costs and carbon footprint. (Catchy slogan of the year? “Instead of a carbon footprint – why not just leave your own? Bionic legs – one charge will take you 40 miles …. in about an hour.”)

December 23 (RW) Happiness becomes the new black, the fashionable alternative to gloom and doom that is popularized in the news. Sadly, it is back out of style by year’s end.

August 28 (RW) Newspapers, continuing to lose market share and revenues, will begin to auction off celebrity. Taking a page from the Paris Hilton saga, they will create buzz for a million, and coverage that can’t be missed for only ten million. After the most closely watched election in decades, this will be one of the few growth areas for beleaguered papers. The news will benefit twice: once by selling their services this way and again by reporting on this trend in tones of outrage.

All year long (RW) Blogging will go through a year of mergers and acquisitions. (Given that there is no money in blogging, it seems only natural that the M&A activity will move to the blogosphere in a year when there is no money in financial markets.) Some of the mergers will be unsurprising - Huffington Post's takeover of Daily Kos seemed terribly obvious in retrospect. Others, however, caught even the most savvy analysts off-guard. June Cleaver Nirvana takeover of Cosmopolitan, for instance, shocked everyone in traditional media and no one in the blogosphere. (Holly told reporters that after giving sex tips for decades, it was time for Cosmo to begin offering advice about how to raise the children that are the natural consequence of following such advice. "It is time to move with our readers, offering stories that they would now find relevant - advice on potlucks and being seen in public in chicken costumes, for instance.") R World will, sadly, be bought out by a Ukrainian poet who insists on rhyming everything BEFORE translating it into English. Living Next Door to Alice will be the first to pioneer the application of a new claymation software that makes all of his posts look like they are narrated by lava lamp blobs morphing into talking heads that vaguely remind people of celebrities in the same way that clouds remind people of horses or sea shells. This media form will so captivate audiences as to entirely replace TV - for the third week in May.

And best of all, in 2009, people will begin to take silliness seriously. It is not obvious that there will be any other way to make it through with our sanity intact. Have a wonderful year.

21 December 2008

The SI "Where is My Swimsuit?" Calendar

Wandering through Border's today, I spotted the perennial best seller - the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar. The super model on the cover didn't actually have a swimsuit - not that I could tell. Which gave me an idea.

The 2010 Sports Illustrated "Where is My" Swimsuit? Calendar.
Super models searching for those little bikinis that have become so small that they are nearly impossible to find.

I think it could sell.

20 December 2008

Stuart Smiley in the Senate?

It looks as though Al Franken might win the final recount in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, in his typically candid style, tells George Stephanopoulos that the U.S. economy is danger of absolutely tanking in 2009.

If Biden is right, I don't suppose it would hurt to have regular reassurances that we Americans are smart enough, good enough and doggone it, people like us. I feel comforted just thinking about it.

19 December 2008

18 December 2008

The Argument for Way Cool Job Titles

This week, Andrew Marr had among his guests Dr. Andy Miah from the University of the West of Scotland and accused him of having the coolest job title of any guest he has ever had.

Miah is Fellow of Visions in Utopia and Dystopia at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.

Now why didn't I think of that? And why can't all job titles be this cool? I mean, is the cost any different for a business card that says Consultant or Analyst or one that says Challenger of Collective Delusions, Rescuer of the Future from Tradition and Social Inertia, or Bodhavista of Fashion and Style?

It's a recession. There is a very good chance that the powers that be will skip your next raise. At least ask them to give you a great job title.

The Dynamics of Financial Immorality

Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
Underlying all of the above problems is a fundamental characteristic of complex human systems: "cause" and "effect" are not close in time and space. By "effects," I mean the obvious symptoms that indicate that there are problems - drug abuse, unemployment, starving children, falling orders, and sagging profits. By "cause" I mean the interaction of the underlying system that is most responsible for generating the symptoms, and which, if recognized, could lead to changes producing lasting improvement. Why is this a problem? Because most of us assume they are - most of us assume, most of the time, that cause and effect are close in time and space.
- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

"The typical response is to blame whoever it closest to the problem."
[paraphrasing] W. Edwards Deming

Here is a potentially great column by James Boyce making his case for how we came into this financial crisis. The column could have been great but it so reeks of accusations of immorality as to miss the real point: questioning the dynamics of the financial system and the rules and behavior that might make it more stable.

Thousands of years ago, disease was obviously the product of sin. Why? We blame the one closest to the illness and we didn't understand illness - didn't understand germs or viruses.

Today, financial catastrophes are obviously the product of greed, of excess, of immorality by the players closest to financial markets - those in debt or those who created the instruments of debt.

There is probably no system more complex than a global financial system. No one completely understands it. And yet it is not obvious that accusations of sin make for good explanations or offer good solutions.

One of the more counter-intuitive conclusions of Keynes was that "good" behavior could actually hurt the financial system. When people chose to save during a down time, they merely exacerbated the down turn.

One of the more counter-intuitive conclusions of Copernicus is that those of us sitting around on planet earth are hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour.

What seems obvious in systems is not always right.

If you hear someone struggling to explain the system dynamics of the global financial system, know two things: they are probably wrong and they are on the right track.

If you hear someone blaming immorality for the collapse of the financial system, ask them whether the outbreak of winter colds and influenza is a product of worsening morals in cold times or a form of penance for bad behavior during summer.

15 December 2008

Shoe Throwing Blogger Reports from the Road (it is cold in the midwest without shoes!)

You know the difference between Muntader al-Zaidi - the guy who threw his shoes at Bush - and us bloggers? Muntader al-Zaidi actually got George to change his position.

I like the idea of throwing shoes at George Bush on 20 January as he leaves office. It could be like rice at a wedding. It might even catch on as new tradition for seeing off the outgoing president. (After 4 to 8 years in office, they always seemed to have inflamed some portion of the shoe-throwing polity.)

13 December 2008

Life Hiker Pops Out of the Virtual World of Blogging

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was notable because characters from one dimension burst through into another. The animated Roger Rabbit landed in our world, cartoon physics intact. Today, I had a similar experience. Sort of.

I got to meet Life Hiker today here in San Diego. We have been reading and commenting on each other's blogs for at least a year now, and when I heard his voice on my answering machine yesterday, I had to chuckle. It was so cool to have him break through the virtual barrier into my real world. (He has, apparently, been there in his real world all along.)

One biggest problem with Life Hiker (who actually has a name) is that I find so little to disagree with in his comments and posts. We've come at some of the same positions from different directions, but I've learned this about the blogosphere: it has created a new kind of neighbor. LH may live across the country in New York, but he's pretty much a next door neighbor when it comes to ideology and worldview. And getting to sit down with him and his son at Con Pane - one of my favorite San Diego bakeries - felt natural.

My wife Sandi came towards the end of our meeting. (He looked more delighted to see her than me, but she is, to be fair, more delightful to look at.) She told him that he was so "real," had such obvious integrity. And he is and he does. I love ideas and would be content not to bother acting on 98% of my ideas. By contrast, LH regularly volunteers, travels abroad to follow his convictions about how to help people, and basically lines up his beliefs and actions in ways that are every kind of admirable. It was great to "meet" this man I know so well.

12 December 2008

Who Needs Infrastructure?

Inflatable electric car can drive off cliffs

Lisa Zyga writes,

It's hard to say what the most intriguing thing about XP Vehicles' inflatable car is. Maybe it's that the car can travel for up to 2,500 miles on a single electric charge (the distance across the US is roughly 3,000 miles).

Or maybe it's the fact that you buy the car online, it gets shipped to you in two cardboard boxes, and the estimated assembly time is less than two hours. Perhaps it's that the car is made out of "airbags" - the same polymer materials used to cushion NASA's rovers when they landed on Mars. Then again, it could be the company's claim that you can drive the car off a cliff without serious injury, and that it will float in a flood or tsunami.

This is perhaps one more reason that the Big Three are flirting with death - a new wave of vehicles is emerging.

The thought of being able to drive off cliffs is exciting but it suggests to me an even more interesting option: doing away with roads altogether. Who needs bridges even, if you have a car that can float? Can you imagine how many trillions of dollars we'd save if we didn't have to rebuild or extend our ailing infrastructure?

11 December 2008

December 21, 2012 - Maya End of World Prophecies

My buddy Mark Van Stone has written about the many theories that have sprung up around the coming end of the Mayan calendar. Mark is a Mayanist and a professor of art history and is a fascinating fellow even when the topic isn't something as inherently interesting as ancient civilizations and end of world theories.

The Maya Cosmic Prophecy: From Sensation to Sensibility

Maya Scholars, in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and North America, have been watching with amusement and dismay as self-styled experts proclaim that ancient Maya prophets foretold an earth-shattering happening to occur December 21, 2012. This predicted phenomenon gets described in contradictory but often cataclysmic fashion--as an ecological collapse, a sunspot storm, a rare cosmic conjunction of the earth, sun, and the galactic center, a new and awesome stage of our evolution, and even a sudden reversal of the Earth's magnetic field which will erase all our computer drives. One even predicts the earth's initiation into a Galactic Federation, whose elders have been accelerating our evolution with a "galactic beam" for the last 5000 years. In sum, the world as we know it will suddenly come to a screeching halt.

Read the rest of it here.

It does seem, though, that espousing any end of world theories (and Mark is not) is a thankless job. If such a prophet ever gets it right, it is not as though he can ever enjoy any recognition for that, after the fact. And of course if you are wrong, you have the whole world there to mock you. It sounds like the kind of job we bloggers could handle. I may just start posting the occasional end of world prediction. Stay tuned.

Santa's Head Banger Doppleganger - "Dancing with My Elves"

By the time Christmas is over, Santa has to be so exhausted, and tired of giving, so weary of patiently sitting through hours of photos and incessant requests for presents. I think that on 27 December, he cuts off the beard, takes off the red suit, and performs. When he does, I can only imagine that he looks and sounds like this - snarling as he sings, "Dancing with my Elves."

09 December 2008

Blagojevich's Free Market Solution to Political Appointments

Illinois's Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich was going to auction off Obama's Senate seat. He might wind up in jail but it is worth thinking about the positives in his attempt. There are at least two.

1. This might be one way to end the political dynasties that persist in our democracy, a free market solution to the current triumph of tradition over open competition.

2. This might be one way to raise money for the government. The French did this before the Revolution. For a certain fee, one could actually become, say, the Duke of French Onion Soup (okay, not quite that bad, but sort of). This was actually an odd form of bond sale because the new royalty, once they'd purchased their title, would then be paid an annual "royalty" into perpetuity, a return on their investment. Why couldn't Senate seats be sold in the same way, the electoral college giving way to eBay?

And it is doesn't seem right to be too hard on a guy named Blagojevich. With a name like that, he probably knew that his career was not going any further. Of course now, blagojevich could become a verb, as in, "he totally blagojeviched that opportunity."

08 December 2008

The Gore Kennedy al-Qaeda Conspiracy as Reported in the Tribune

The Democrats' most visible expert on environmental issues is flying to Chicago to advise the president-elect on his Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Secretary appointments. Unless Gore has found a way to fly there in a cape, I am not sure how this is news.


As the world becomes more complex, brands have more value. In theory, we make rational decisions based on lots of information. In practice, we rely on familiar brands to sort through a sea of confusing variables. (Caroline) Kennedy may be replacing (Hillary) Clinton as the junior Senator from New York.

Or political dynasties could have nothing to do with brands and everything to do with our membership in the primate family: Jane Goodall might be able to explain political dynasties more readily than branding experts.


Tribune, publishers of newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and LA Times, has filed for bankruptcy. I've noticed of late that I don't have the patience for a newspaper for one simple reason: the mix of stories the editor chooses have little overlap with the mix I'd choose when on-line. As it turns out, the packaging of the stories into a "paper" is the part of publishing that has perhaps the least value. It is not just the fact that stories can be accessed by online users who don't subscribe - each of us can put together our own package of news, commentary, comedy, and borscht recipes without relying on the randomly overlapping interests of editors. Tribune is going to be just one in a string of casualties of this new hyper-customization of media unless they figure out how to facilitate this process rather than close their eyes and desperately wish it away.

Five members of al-Qaeda have entered a guilty plea. Apparently, they want a promotion from prisoner to martyr. Of course this is nonsense.

Those al-Qaeda guys could never manipulate a country as sophisticated as ours. Osama bin Laden had planned to lure the U.S. into wars it could not afford, destroying the country by enticing it into overextending itself financially, leading to economic ruin. Of course this is nonsense.

We are simply too sophisticated to be so easily manipulated.

07 December 2008

How People Talk

Today we were with my parents. I realized something about what we talk about - my parents and I prefer very different topics: dad likes to talk about things, mom about people and I like to talk about ideas.

I decided to process this by creating a table, adding to it a reference point. The thing I didn't put into this simple table is optimistic or pessimistic - whether someone prefers horror stories or stories with a happy ending.
(To make this table large enough to easily read, you can either click through or buy a huge monitor.)

06 December 2008

Peace & Happiness

"I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool."
- Kurt Vonnegut

05 December 2008

A Stimulus that Doesn't Cost Trillions - Raising the Quota for Foreign Workers

One of the ideas behind any economic stimulus package is that spending has a multiplier effect. If the government spends $100, the people who get that money will spend a portion of it on services and products that will, in turn, be spent again, and again, and again. The defense contractor gives his money to the restaurant owner who gives it to the flooring store who .... The $100 originally put into the economy might stimulate a total of $200 to $1,000 before its ripples fade into insignificance.

Communities can also get a multiplier effect from jobs that create goods that are sold globally. Engineers and manufacturers, for example, eat out, pay taxes that pay teachers, hire plumbers, and stimulate the local economy in various ways that are obvious when someone like GM closes a plant or office in a community.

We now are spending borrowed money in the hopes of stimulating the economy. Had our policy towards foreign graduate students and employees not become so xenophobic since 9-11, we might be getting more of that stimulus from high-paid professionals who are, instead, now living and working in places like Bangalore and Shanghai.

One of the most noticeable things about American high-tech firms is what a high percentage of their team members are foreign born. As a consultant, more than once I have been with development teams where I was the only American-born person. It is not unusual for about 90% of the team to be from either China or India. They are living and working here in the US but they had moved here either for graduate school or work.

Most Americans are unaware of how much work the nice couple from India or China brings into the area. When a high-tech company hires a software developer or hardware designer for a six-figure salary and his wife gets on at the local ER, making the same or more, these two stimulate the local economy in various ways. They spend money at local restaurants and bid up the prices of homes. They make it more probable that a book store will come into the area or that a college will offer MBAs to aspiring professionals. The plumbing company owner who makes even more than the engineering director can make that much because his clients make good money. Everything ripples. Surgeons in rich countries are rich and in poor countries are poor.

But if in a post-9-11 world this Indian software developer stays in Bangalore, so will the things he can buy. The bump in pay for the plumber, the expansion of the local MBA program, the steadier business for the restaurants ... all of this now accrues to Bangalore instead of Chandler, Arizona, or San Jose.

Since 9-11, it has been increasingly difficult for American companies to hire foreigners. Recently, I heard a director of software from a medium-sized company say that he doesn't even try to get work VISAs for foreigners and accepts that he just won't be able to get enough talent here in the US. Meanwhile, he - like so many managers I've talked to - tells horror stories about working with teams in Bangalore or Shanghai, trying to coordinate the definition of specifications and the execution on tasks across cultures, languages, and time zones. American companies would often rather have the talent here in the US but do not have that option. This doesn’t just make it hard on American companies; it makes it hard on American communities.

We live in a global economy and we may well be experiencing the first significant recession of this most recent wave of globalization. Today's report about the loss of half a million jobs last month makes it obvious that this is already worse than the average recession. I can't help but think that it has been made even worse by our nearly xenophobic policy towards foreign graduate students and professionals. After World War 2, we were the magnet for talent from around the globe. We had the technology and labs that could be found nowhere else. We had the capital and the big corporations. Gradually, that advantage has eroded. In the 7 years since 9-11, American politicians have consistently exacerbated this trend with their apparent fear of foreigners.

As American politicians consider radical measures like bailing out huge swaths of the economy with trillions of dollars, perhaps they could consider a simpler measure. Perhaps they could raise the quota for foreign-born workers to allow the American economy to enjoy the most organic and natural of stimulus packages: great jobs that help to employ the millions of teachers, doctors, dry cleaners, waiters, and plumbers whose salaries ultimately depend on the pay and productivity of their clients.

04 December 2008

From Boom to Bust(ing up big companies)

Eliot Spitzer demonstrates over at Slate why I was so grieved when we lost him to libido. Given the importance of financial markets, it seemed to me that his savvy about them was incredibly valuable to good government.

Spitzer says that the "too big to fail" model for banks is the problem and that rather than prop them up with subsidies, we ought to let them fragment into smaller pieces.

Yesterday, I had an exchange with my cousin Scott and he suggested the same thing about the auto industry. Let the little start ups offering new and innovative (and typically more green) designs take market share from the Big 3. (Look at this little Aptera, made by a company here in San Diego County, that gets 300 mpg, for instance.)

For autos and finance the future is uncertain. What kind of models will work best? What kind of financial products are innovative and which are merely reckless? What kind of cars will work to alleviate congestion and pollution? And even we could define these products, what kind of company could best provide the whole package (from employees to prices to support infrastructure) to best deliver those products?

Given so much is uncertain, it is best to have lots of experiments running right now. The Big 3 and the big banks could, in theory, run those experiments, letting various divisions and groups take their shot at creating a new future. But one of the many problems with CEOs making so much money is that they seemingly feel obligated to earn it. They review and judge the various plans from within the company, effectively running everything through the same filter - making the company one really big test of one theory rather than lots of small tests of many theories.

Given the financial crisis, Obama has been compared to FDR. What if, instead, the better model is the brash Teddy Roosevelt who broke up big companies, forcing competition into industries that made a few rich but did little for the rest of the country? He could do worse than accept this argument from Spitzer:

But even more important, from a structural perspective, our dependence on [financial institutions] of this size ensured that we would fall prey to a "too big to fail" argument in favor of bailouts.

Two responses are possible: One is to accept the need for gigantic financial institutions and the impossibility of failure—and hence the reality of explicit government guarantees, such as Fannie and Freddie now have—but then to regulate the entities so heavily that they essentially become extensions of the government. To do so could risk the nimbleness we want from economic actors.

The better policy is to return to an era of vibrant competition among multiple, smaller entities—none so essential to the entire structure that it is indispensable.

The concentration of power—political as well as economic—that resided in these few institutions has made it impossible so far for this crisis to be used as an evolutionary step in confronting the true economic issues before us. But imagine if instead of merging more and more banks together, we had broken them apart and forced them to compete in a genuine manner. Or, alternatively, imagine if we had never placed ourselves in a position in which so many institutions were too big to fail. The bailouts might have been unnecessary.

02 December 2008


Beyond all the political chatter, fretting about financial markets, criticism or defense of the new administration and the love for the absurd ... a little reminder about what it is all about from the wonder that is Natalie Merchant.

I love this song and video.

Happy Hump Day.

Soros on Free Market Fundamentalism

I think I realized one of the biggest reasons why DC has seemed to choose free markets over regulation: it is easier to opt for free markets than to do the difficult work of figuring out how to regulate them.

George Soros has written an article, The Crisis and What to Do About It.

Since [financial markets] are prone to create asset bubbles, regulators such as the Fed, the Treasury, and the SEC must accept responsibility for preventing bubbles from growing too big. Until now financial authorities have explicitly rejected that responsibility. It is impossible to prevent bubbles from forming, but it should be possible to keep them within tolerable bounds.

Soros has made a fortune in financial markets. Last year alone his income (income - not wealth) was nearly $2 billion. Soros fled eastern Europe for free markets but is a critic of what he calls free market fundamentalism.

I mostly agree with and admire Soros. (Okay, maybe even envy him. I'd work at his salary for just a week and be happy with the 30-some million.) I think it is wonderful to have markets and I think that it as silly to think that financial markets will self regulate as to think that football games or or any sports contest will self regulate.

But his words here get to the crux of why regulation is so hard and why it is so much easier to take the extremist positions of free market fundamentalism or socialism.

First of all, who wants a Federal Reserve chairman who keeps asset prices down? It sounds good in abstract, but we're actually talking about home prices and portfolios that we're keeping from appreciating too much.

Secondly, what is the tolerable bounds for a bubble? Don't we all want just one or two more percentage gains - no matter what gains we've already made? Who is to say what is too big? Someone whose annual income is $1.7 billion? Someone who is on a fixed government salary and envies anyone making more than $100,000 a year?

As anyone who has bought furniture at Ikea can attest, just because something is hard is no reason not to do it. Getting the right level of regulation is hard because what makes for best short-term conditions (stability and predictability) can make for poor long-term conditions (innovation and change at the heart of progress).

Soros is saying what a lot of us are thinking. He also seems to raise more questions than he answers. And I think that this is perhaps the biggest reason that free market fundamentalism won converts. It suggests that regulators don't have to make any hard decisions or difficult judgments. They can simply leave it to the market.

$25 Billion for These Guys?

"Leadership is not the same as reaction. Even a cat will jump off of a hot stove. Leadership involves prediction."
[loosely quoting] W. Edwards Deming

The big three auto companies are clarifying their request for $25 billion to bail them out.

GM"s CEO will drive to DC in a hybrid car.
Ford's CEO will work for $1 if the auto industry gets $25 billion. (Which, oddly enough, suggests that if his company has less money he'll ask for more pay.)

These two were sharply criticized for flying to DC on private jets, asking the American taxpayer for money. And Ford's CEO, Mulally, said that he thought his $21.7 million compensation package was okay, even when the company he was leading needed to be bailed out.

I guess this shows that these CEOs can be shamed into changing their behavior. But it also seems to affirm that they are merely lurching from one reactionary move to another. And in an industry where developing a new model car can take 3 to 8 years, leadership by reaction is far more of a liabilty than high gas prices or tight credit markets.

It seems doubtful that these CEOs have a bold vision of the future or have any real connection to the average consumer. Given that, it is not obvious how they'd be able to put $25 billion to good use. I say invest the money into mass transit instead.

29 November 2008

Lost Teachings of the Buddha

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

"Have you noticed one thing that Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus have in common?" I asked.
Bernard began to chortle. "No! But I do know what John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common," and then he dissolved into laughter.
"What," I groaned patiently.
"Same middle name!" he doubled up in laughter, nearly hitting his head on the table.
I was trying to feign tolerance but in fact I had to laugh. "No," I shook my head. "Although I guess this is true of Winnie and John as well. Have you ever noticed that Socrates, Buddha and Jesus never wrote anything?"
"No," Bernard confessed.
"At least, as far as we know. They just wandered around and taught people. And yet look at how long their teachings have lasted," I said. "Look at how much impact they have had on people's thinking for thousands of years."
"Oh, Ron," Bernard giggled, "did you hear about Buddha's lost teachings?"
"No," I replied.
"Everyone knows that the Buddha taught that want is at the root of unhappiness," and Bernard began to giggle some more. "Did you know what he taught is at the root of happiness?"
"No," I repeated.
"Wanton!" And Bernard giggled at his wit. "Want makes you unhappy, and wanton makes you happy! Get it?" And again he laughed. Bernard is, to his credit, a cheery drunk.

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

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

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

"I think I'm okay where I am"

So it was hard to feel sorry for the executives when Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), late in the hearing, reminded them again that "the symbolism of the private jet is difficult," and mischievously asked the witnesses whether, in another symbolic gesture, they would be willing to work for $1 a year, as Nardelli has offered to do.

"I don't have a position on that today," demurred Wagoner (2007 total compensation: $15.7 million).

"I understand the intent, but I think where we are is okay," said [Ford's CEO] Mulally ($21.7 million).

"I'm asking about you," Roskam pressed.

"I think I'm okay where I am," Mulally said.

[full story here]

Today's CEOs are the last of the monarchs. Not only are they paid outrageous sums but they are the last of the major leaders to rule without challenge.

Bill Clinton was continually berated and criticized by Americans, as was George Bush. And so will Barack Obama. And the beauty of this system is that we can accuse our presidents of any kind of heinous crime and make our case in public and still not worry about losing citizenship or being deported.

If an employee at Ford were to make public statements about Mulally like those that many Americans have made about Clinton or Bush, this employee would be gone - fired. CEOs do not entertain critics.

One simple plan that I would propose for publicly traded firms is this: corporations allow a free press and even a two-party system within.

As I've mentioned earlier, corporations comprise between one third to two thirds of the 100 largest economies in the world. (The 100 largest economies list includes Japan and General Electric, France and Exxon.) We've learned in the West that no country can prosper with centrally-controlled economy or an society with government control of the press and the flow of information. Essential to success of a large system is the distribution of information and power. What if that applied to all economies - even those within a corporation?

Imagine that the stockholders and employees had free flow of information about projects and teams and management policies. And that - as with a parliamentary system - an election could be called and stockholders and employees were given a chance to vote on direction and even things like CEO salary. What if the CEOs had to please the stockholders and employees instead of dictate to them?

Progress in the West has followed from a diffusion of power. Religion got so much better when popes lost their monopoly control over it. Government, too, became less oppressive and more able when monarchs lost their grip on it. When legislation and the popularization of finance handcuffed the robber barons, financial markets prospered. Now it's time to do to CEOs what we've done to popes, kings, and robber barons - disperse their power.

Mulally thinks that he's okay where he is. Most of us don't. No dictator ever pointed out that the rest of us would be better off if he gave up some power. We can't wait for the CEOs to come to this realization.

26 November 2008

Justice League Battles the Buddha (And Other Celluloid Conflicts I'd Pay to See)

At various times, productions that pit great villains against each other emerge to suck money from the pockets of teenage boys. King Kong vs. Godzilla. Predator vs. Alien. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bambi Meets Godzilla. Pink Floyd's Paul Rodgers tours with Queen.

Some of the most obvious (to me) and most promising of the pairings of villains or super heroes have yet to be made. This is my attempt to begin to address this egregious oversight on the part of Hollywood.

Calvin & Hobbes Sleepover at the Simpsons

Mayhem ensues as Calvin and Bart team up to battle insomnia. In a touching ending, Homer is left feeling incredibly fortunate that for all his shortcomings, Bart is not Calvin. Fortunate, that is, until Bart starts plotting wild schemes with a stuffed platypus.

Justice League Battles the Buddha
This clash of the corporeal and spiritual plays out until Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of them grow frustrated by the Buddha's benign disinterest in them, their wicked cool costumes, and awesome super powers and doesn't just refuse to fight back but goes so far as to actually ignore them.

Freud vs. Bruce Wayne
Freud struggles to get Bruce Wayne to open up about his dark fears and delusions of grandeur, but Bruce continues to retreat to the Bat Cave, going so far as make Alfred phone Freud to cancel appointments. (As an interesting subplot, Freud is able to get Alfred to see that he is an enabler in Bruce Wayne's odd fantasy life.) This face off between super heroes perhaps ends most enigmatically, as we watch, in the last scene, Freud descend into the subway, his cape billowing behind him. We are left to wonder whether Bruce Wayne's fantasy life has become Freud's.

Nietzsche vs. Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Nihilism erupts in this powerful contest between two men playing a game of moral chicken - each upping the ante in a series of encounters designed to test the limits of a world beyond good and evil. Nietzsche steals from a collection plate. Lecter drives a Hummer in the car pool lane. Nietzsche seduces a nun. Lecter papers over solar panels in a university neighborhood. The tit for tat escalates until the attack on morality leaves viewers either floundering in an existential abyss of moral uncertainty or desperately clinging to their cultural mores.

Stephen Hawking vs. Jack LaLanne
LaLanne scoffs at Hawking's attempts to articulate the importance of intellectual development, annoyingly picking up furniture and cars and saying, "I'll bet you can't do this at 94!" as a rebuttal to every point Hawking tries to make. Hawking, in the end, is smart enough to realize that he'll never win over LaLanne and submits to coaching from LaLanne on how to improve his posture.

The possibilities seem endless. (Justice League vs. Victoria Secret's Supermodels in a struggle about how to best define underwear as outwear, for instance, or the Godfather of Soul James Brown vs. the great running back Jim Brown.) I plan to pitch these movie ideas to people in Hollywood. Now if only I can get someone to return my phone calls.

25 November 2008

Two Kinds of People

"There are," Bernard said, "two kinds of people."
"I know. Maddie told me. There are Zambonis and grocery carts."
"No," Bernard waved me off while he wrinkled his nose up. "That's just nonsense."
"So," I tried what I thought was a sage voice, "two kinds of people: people who can be put into some category and people who can't be?" I chortled at my own joke.

"And you think that a quote is the same as an insight?" Bernard asked. "People who trot out someone else's quotes are like little kids playing dress up with their parents' clothes." He shook his head. "Don't use quotes. It's juvenile."
I rather like quotes but was in no real mood to argue with Bernard. "Okay," I shrugged.

"Two kinds of people," Bernard held up his fingers. "People who don't have a clue and people who don't have a clue that they don't have a clue."
"You are saying that we don't even have clues? None of us?"
"Well, okay. Maybe we have clues but we haven't really pieced them together. There are so many pieces and so much of it contradictory that it ultimately defies our powers of inductive reasoning."

"I'm not so sure. There are people I would go to if I needed help repairing my car, for instance."
"I'm talking about life - not objects! There are people who just don't know. They, for the most part, are hesitant to ever admit this. And then there are people who just prattle on at length about how life works. Full of advice, almost none of which actually applies. And they haven't a clue that what they are telling you to do is not just different from what they actually did but is highly unlikely to apply to your situation. Some people don't know and some people don't know that they don't know. It is ludicrous." Bernard stared at his drink.

"You visited your cousin Eliot again, didn't you?"
"Bah!" Bernard spat. "I don't want to hear his name for the rest of the day."
"Got it," I said, pretending to zip my mouth closed. "He's that kind of person, eh?"
"Ah," Bernard sighed, "he is so much that kind of person."

24 November 2008

Too Big to Fail

Citi joins the list of companies too big to fail

Over 6' 4" and more than 200 pounds, I've decided that this notion of "too big to fail" ought to be extended beyond just companies. I would like to be put on this list.

Don't worry though. I will remember you little people.

But I Thought That a Post-Bush World Was Supposed to Make Sense!

We have moved from talk of bailouts to massive economic stimulus packages without any intervening discussion. Somewhere in that transition I got lost.

I understand a bailout of banks. Capitalism without capital is like a party without people. If banks collapse, so will credit markets. But a credit crisis is different from a slow down. (Related, sure, but different.)

Unemployment in October hit 6.5 percent – up from 6.1 percent in September. This is not good news but it hardly seems like justification for spending another trillion or so to “stimulate” the economy as Obama's people are suggesting.

Remember how Afghanistan became Iraq without any backward glance? The Taliban hatched the plot for 9-11 and we overthrew the government that coddled them. That made sense. And then suddenly, we were headed to Iraq. No one could ever explain to me (sorry Davos – that includes you) why this was not the grandest non sequitur of all foreign policy blunders.

Today, I get a similar feeling about this talk of economic revival. We’re supposed to believe that 6.5% unemployment is historic, is awful, and requires an unprecedentedly huge stimulus package? Back in the early 80s, when I was doing my undergrad in economics, 6% unemployment was considered the "natural" rate - the percent of the work force that would probably be unemployed at any given time.

Economic stimulus is a completely different topic than propping up credit markets. Sadly, no one covering the news seems to make this distinction.

Households have been saving 0% of income for years. Now they are spending less. Spending less is a good thing - adjusting us towards something sustainable. A recession seems unavoidable as the economy adjusts to this new reality. This is not a bad thing – just an awkward thing. Like puberty.

Unemployment will go up more. So, we should extend unemployment benefits, fund education and retraining. We should make it easier on the poor and those who are struggling. These ought not to be short-term measures, though. This should be normal policy. And distinct from spending trillions.

Meanwhile, it might be worth considering the possibility that borrowing huge sums of money to fund government spending might not be the best reaction to narrowly averting a credit collapse.

Obama’s team of advisers is talking about spending another trillion or two (or three) – in addition to what has already been spent. To stimulate the economy?

Am I the only one who doesn’t see a recession stemming from a shift in the economy as different from a near collapse of credit markets? And I was so convinced that once Obama was elected I would stop feeling like I was from Mars and policy makers were from (“it’s not even a planet!”) Pluto.

Sigh. At least I'll still have something to blog about. If only it were some topic other than disasters boldly blundered into. Some days I wonder how I remain an optimist.

23 November 2008

Raising Awareness of Awareness

Yesterday Rick and I were walking the boardwalk at Pacific Beach, talking about the kinds of things we talk about. Much of it fell into the category of awareness. He was talking about how little awareness we seem to have of how our life styles negatively impact the life expectancies of people in other countries. I was talking our lack of systems thinking means that we have little understanding of consequences and about how little awareness we seem to have of how much of our life style is unsustainable. Rick pointed out that one of the most basic goals of any religion is to raise awareness, to become self aware at least.

As we walked, we found ourselves among about 4,700 people - mostly women - who were on day two of a three day, 60 mile breast cancer awareness walk.

"Look at this," I said. "Look at how they're using this event to raise awareness of breast cancer. I wonder how we could do something like this."

Rick, always delighted to point out that I'm being absurd even on those odd occasions when I think that I am not, said, "So, you are saying that you want to raise awareness of awareness?"

Oddly enough, I do.

22 November 2008

If I Had a Trillion Dollars

Congress is still waiting for the banks to ignite this economy with the $700 billion they've been offered. Last night, my wife Sandi and buddy Rick were making the point that money ought to pumped into actual projects. Rick thinks that infrastructure should be created (e.g., high speed train that links Vancouver, BC, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco) and rebuilt (e.g., crumbling bridges). This would create work twice - once for the infrastructure project and again for the business it would facilitate.

If you 1 trillion dollars to spray around at the economy like a kid trying to wake a sleeping dog, where would you direct it? What projects would you fund?

20 November 2008

Maddie Glosses Over the Great Depression

"Where is Maddie?" I asked Bernard as I sat down.
"She's trembling in fear," Bernard said with a roll of his eyes.
"Well, in her words, we have just elected a black Marxist Muslim atheist for president."
"What?" I scratched my head. "Is that even possible?"
"With Maddie anything is possible," he said with a tone of resigned disgust that only a sibling can muster.
"No," I said. "Can a person be a Muslim atheist? What is that even supposed to be? A religious extremist who doesn't believe in God?"
Bernard snorted. "Maybe it's someone who doesn't believe in Allah."
"Well then," I said, "I guess you're a Muslim atheist. I think that every president we've ever elected has been a Muslim atheist."

About ten minutes later, Maddie sat down to join us.
"How are you," I asked her.
"I am reading the most amazing book," Maddie said. "I just lost track of the time."
"What are you learning?"
"Well, this author says that you can divide people into two categories: some people are Zambonis and some people are grocery carts."
"What?" Bernard looked up from his menu with a frown.
"Grocery Carts just keep piling stuff on. These are people who just keep accumulating and aren't designed to take any bumps."
"Like shoppers at Costco or like homeless people?"
"Yes," Maddie continued on. "And Zambonis are people who just gloss over everything. They just try to smooth out everything. And they don't carry anything with them."
"How does this explain the world," Bernard shook his head.
"Well, I am a Zamboni and you are a grocery cart, Bernie."
"How do you know this?"
"They have a test in the book."
"Is this like The Secret," Bernard asked. "A book that millions of people read to transform their lives just before the economy collapses?"
"See. You are a grocery cart. You see something like that and you don't let it go. Suddenly, every book that could help you is suspect."
"And you?"
"I think I learned to gloss over things because of growing up with you," Maddie said. "You are always pointing out what is wrong or missing. I had to learn how to gloss over things just to cope."

As we were eating, I could not resist asking her, "So, Maddie, I hear that you have some trepidation about Obama."
"Oh," she giggled nervously. "Kind of. Not really." She fussed with her napkin. "I just don't know about what to expect from him."
"I'm hopeful," I said. "I like him."
"Well, his children are beautiful," Maddie Zamboni replied. "Black children are so cute."
"Except for the ones who aren't," Bernard dryly replied. "The best thing about him?" he continued. "He is not Bush."
"Oh Bernie, see? You are a grocery cart," Maddie said. "Just let go of that already."
"Let go? Bush is still president," Bernard protested.
"See," Maddie turned to me. "Just like the book said. Bernie is such a grocery cart. He can't let go."
"What about you with Obama?" Bernard asked.
"Oh, well," Maddie waved her hand. "I'm sure we'll get through this Great Depression that he's brought on. We lived through Hitler," Maddie said as she buried her face in the menu. "We'll make it."
"'Great Depression that he's brought on?'" Bernard echoed incredulously. "How did he bring it on? He's not even president yet. And how is it even a Great Depression?"
"Oh," Maddie said, "the election is over. Let's not talk politics today."
Bernard shook his head. "You are such a Zamboni," he muttered.
"See!" Maddie lit up. "I told you! This book is so amazing."

"It makes sense, really, that electing a Marxist would trigger a depression," I said as we ate.
"Yes!" Maddie said. "I am so glad to hear you say that."
"I wonder what I am according to your book," I asked her.
Bernard, disgustedly said, "Probably a vacuum cleaner."
"Why?" I asked.
"You suck," he muttered at me.
"No," Maddie said. "That's not in there. At least not in the part I've read so far. There are no vacuum cleaners."
"Oh yes there are," Bernard said staring daggers at me.

Life Before Cubicles

The dudes at TransWorld Surf named my alma mater the number one surf school in the nation. They say this about the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC),
The best of both worlds: a great education and some of the best, most-consistent surf California has to offer—from never-ending right points and peaky, powerful beachbreaks to big-wave spots like Mavericks. The school mascot is a gigantic banana slug. UCSC’s downsides include cold water, sharks, co-eds soaked in patchouli oil, drum circles, and demanding professors.

UC Santa Cruz's campus is still one of the most beautiful places I've been. One quarter I had a twenty minute walk between two classes that were scheduled just 15 minutes apart. I inevitably arrived late and never once (well, okay once) felt stressed about it. On this particular walk, all buildings would disappear from view a couple of times as I walked through redwoods and at another point I'd walk through a meadow that included an expansive view of the Pacific. I would see birds, squirrels, and even deer among the trees. It was like going to school in one of America's most beautiful parks. When I went there, we had about 4,000 students and 2,000 acres.

More than once I've day dreamed about building on campus at UCSC where I'd be nestled among the redwoods but able to look across the meadow to the town and ocean below (imagine the top picture as the view out the front door and the bottom picture as the view out the back door). Instead, some 18 year old with a dorm room and a penchant for surfing will get to live in that place. But only for a year or so. And maybe that's best. I guess that things this delightful are best rotated.

18 November 2008

Convict Nearly Wins Senate Seat - Or The Paradox of (Reductionist) Politics

It is a testament to Stevens' popularity — he was once named "Alaskan of the Century" — that he won nearly half the votes, even after his conviction. He routinely brought home the highest number of government dollars per capita in the nation — more than $9 billion in 2006 alone, according to one estimate.
With Stevens gone "it's a big gap in dollars — billions of dollars — that none of the other members of the delegation, Begich, whoever, could fill," said Gerald McBeath, chair of the political science department at University of Alaska Fairbanks. "There is no immediate replacement for him." [full story here]

The idea behind the reductionist model of the world is simple: what is best for the part(s) is best for the whole.

If this were true, having 535 congressmen all clamoring for tax breaks and spending for their districts would result in what is best for the country. But actually, the more successful each senator or congressperson is in getting more spending into his / her district, the larger the deficit and the higher the burden on the country as a whole.

To give you some idea of well this reductionist model is working, next year the federal deficit might reach one trillion dollars. And while nearly all individual congresspersons or senators has an approval rating high enough to win by a comfortable margin, Congress as a whole has an approval rating in the single digits.

Congress is not designed to do what is best for the country. It is designed to do what is best for each district. There is a difference. It's not obvious how we'll translate that distinction into policy.

16 November 2008

Cabinet Remodeling - Celebs in the (White) House

It is time to add some cachet to the cabinet. It could be that celebrity is the last area of competitive advantage for the US and why not exploit that for the purpose of policy?

The media is desperately trying to sustain interest in politics by turning speculation about cabinet appointments into news. Why not make it real news: Obama could make two appointments for each secretary position - a person responsible for the department and a celebrity who could be its face to the public.

For Secretary of Agriculture, it seems to me that Willie Nelson is the obvious candidate. He is the driving force behind Farm Aid, dresses like a farmer, and is a strong supporter of local (albeit underground) agriculture.

For Interior, Martha Stewart gets the nod. Assuming, that is, anyone in this country still cares about things like throw pillows and pastels and how to recycle greeting cards into quilted holiday vests.

I'd make Scrooge McDuck the Treasury Secretary. Of course he's fictional, but ultimately any celebrity is manufactured. And given that he can be animated he would be easier to control than, say, Willie Nelson. Anyone visiting the website for the commerce department could see him diving in his money bin - letting us all revel in the vicarious thrill of mad wealth even in down times. And given how stingy he was with even Donald and his nephews, Scrooge would be unlikely to just give away $700 billion, which might actually make him more qualified for the position than Hank Paulson.

Secretary of Defense really ought to be Sylvester Stallone. The best part about having him in this role? No odd speeches or rambling press conferences, ala Donald Rumsfeld. Imagine - a speech of only 3 or 4 words from a politician of any kind. But most importantly, we could slash defense spending by 80 or 90% and still have the firepower to take out any and all of America's enemies.

Secretary of Education should be Bill Cosby, not just the most famous comedian in America but perhaps the only comedian in the world with a PhD in education. Plus it is hard to imagine any other appointee feeling so free to rebuke the young Obama when it may be called for.

Secretary of State - Elle McPherson. I know. She's not even American (I almost suggested UN ambassador Angelina Jolie for this reason). But given that this position is about relationships with other countries, why not start with someone who is actually from a foreign country? And why shouldn't at least one appointee simply be gorgeous?

Secretary of Energy - Jim Carey. (Not my idea. My Canadian wife came up with this inspired choice of another Canadian, and my second appointment of a foreigner.) It is hard to think of anyone with more energy than Carey. If only we could somehow harness this.

My choice for Transportation Secretary is Dean Kamen. It is easy to dismiss Kamen's idea for the Segway as a vehicle for local transportation. It certainly did not meet his nearly grandiose expectations. But I remember when they laughed at Steve Jobs' Lisa computer. And it seems to me that energy savings are more likely to come from something like bionic limbs than improving gas mileage by 10%. Every day, millions of 150 lb. Americans climb into 2,500 lb. vehicles for their daily commute. How much less energy would it take if those vehicles were closer to their own weight, like, say, a Segway, a scooter that is probably closer to practical than a pair of legs that run at 60 mph.

Secretary of Commerce, Warren Buffet. One of the richest men in the world. An early supporter of Barack Obama's. Need I say more?

Homeland Security should be John McClane. Okay, another fictional character, but Bruce Willis could play him just like he did in the Die Hard movies. We wouldn't even need airport security with McClane watching over things. Just think - no more lines at the airport.

Finally, Housing & Urban Affairs should be split into two: Donald Trump, America's most visible real estate developer, for housing and Kanye West, America's best known rapper (or singer and songwriter of what was once quaintly known as urban music) for Urban Affairs.

Not every state is as enlightened as my home state of California where we have twice collapsed celebrity and politics by electing an actor to become governor. It is time that the entire country benefit from the blurring of such boundaries. (And I will post on this benefit as soon as I determine what it is.)

14 November 2008

Stupidly Optimistic (or what if consumption were finally sustainable?)

Retail sales plunged by a record amount in October as shoppers reined in spending with home prices falling, although plunging gasoline prices also reduced outlays by consumers.

Sales slumped 2.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted $363.7 billion, the largest decline since the series began in 1992, the Commerce Department said. The previous record was a 2.65 percent drop in November 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks that year.

Retail sales fell 1.3 percent in September. Meanwhile, consumer confidence rose unexpectedly, according to a survey released Friday, as tumbling gasoline prices offset worries about unemployment and recession. [full story here]

There are two reasons that consumption has dropped. Both seem to me like good reasons.

One is that the cost of things has dropped. Home prices during the last year and gas prices in the last couple of months have plunged. If you "consume" the same amount of gas or new houses, your total consumption drops. That seems like a good thing.

Today at Costco, gas prices were 2.09 a gallon - down about $114.00 a gallon from just months ago. I felt so excited about the low price that after I filled up I drove around the block and came back for more. I repeated the drill half a dozen times - I just could not resist filling up when prices were so low.

Home prices are down. My children have got a chance to actually buy a home here in San Diego someday. Why people thrill at rising home prices escapes me. Housing - like fuel or clothing - is a cost and if it is lower we have more money for other things.

And finally, consumption is down. Keep in mind that we've been saving about 0% of our income for the last decade or so. This kind of behavior falls into the category of unsustainable. We can't continue to consume at such a rate. That consumption has dropped is great. It suggests that we have a chance to get savings and spending set at rates that can be sustained for more than a mere decade or two.

The bad news is that the economy is staggering. The good news is that this difficult adjustment might just result in a new level of consumption that can be sustained. It doesn't surprise me that consumer confidence is up.

Minority Religions in a Democracy

But what has upset many gay-rights advocates is the extent of the Mormon church's support for Proposition 8, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and overrides a ruling that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional.

Top church leaders urged members in California to do all they could to support the proposition, and members gave millions. [story here]

A South Carolina Roman Catholic priest has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil."

The Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote.[story here]

I have an idea for people who think that their religious beliefs should be imposed on everyone: let them live under a theocracy (Iran or Saudi Arabia perhaps?) for a few years and see how that works out.

The really odd thing about this support? Mormons and Catholics were initially - and reluctantly - tolerated in this country because of their minority position. In part because of their tendency to insist on making reproduction actually productive, their numbers as a percentage of the American population have grown. Now that they are not just tolerated but have been made a part of the American landscape, they are going to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us? Could anything be more absurd?

We tolerated their odd religious beliefs and have come to accept them. Perhaps they could be gracious enough - and wise enough - to tolerate the rest of America and perhaps even accept them.

(And lest my Mormon and Catholic readers think that I'm unnecessarily picking on their churches, let me say that many members of my own faith are even more absurd. At least Catholics and Mormons are a sizable minority. We have no name and don't even make up one-tenth of one percent of the population and yet I've heard a number of folks from my faith talk as intolerantly as any Catholic or Mormon. I can only attribute it to a lack of awareness. There is no majority religion in this country. No state religion. We all ought to have the common sense to tolerate beliefs that are unlike our own. Christ taught that believers would be forgiven only as much as they were willing to forgive. Maybe we should have a secular law that a religion will be tolerated only as much as it is willing to tolerate.)

12 November 2008

Bush Bails Out on Bailout

In a stunning turnabout, the Bush administration Wednesday abandoned the original centerpiece of its $700 billion effort to rescue the financial system and said it will not use the money to purchase troubled bank assets.

“Our assessment at this time is that this (the purchase of toxic assets) is not the most effective way to use funds,” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told a news conference.

[Full story can be found on click through - read on here if you want to dive into plausible fiction.]

The Bush administration has realized that it can purchase whole countries instead - "places where we can run experiments to test various economic models and bailout options before we commit to any one plan," Paulson explained.

"As it turns out," Treasury Secretary Paulson said, "$700 billion is a LOT of money. Once we realized how much we could do with it, buying bad assets didn't seem that appealing." (Reporters commented later that Paulson seemed to drag out the term bad assets is ways that he might have hoped would make an old white man in a suit sound like a bad ass.)

George Bush, who is looking for retirement property, was said to have protested any move that would prop up home prices before he moved out in January. Aids say that Bush was shocked to realize that although the resale value of the White House was still high, he would not actually get to sell it when he moved out. "If we aren't selling the place," he said to Laura, "tell me again what the deal was with showing the place to that young black couple with the two pretty little girls?" They deny, though, that this is the only reason Bush has decided to embrace a policy that would let home prices fall further.

Paulson explained that there is something magical about having $700 billion to spend at any time. "You should see the way people look at me, hang on my every word, hoping that I might throw a little of it their way. Even when I was the CEO at Goldman Sachs, it was never this good," he said. "I don't want to rush this process of deciding where to spend the money."

The Bush administration said that it has no plans to revive credit markets or the economy and might not have one until sometime after the holidays - "perhaps late January," Dick Cheney said with a chuckle.

11 November 2008

The Three Stages of Understanding (Or, Why We Don't Trust Experts)

In this country, we have a distrust of experts. I have one theory about why that might be.

Systems are defined by interaction. Worse, the influence of any ONE element depends on at least one other element. For instance, two children who are continually undermined by their mother will experience this differently. The impact of the mother will depend upon at least one other element - from differences in personality to fashion daring between the siblings. Systems - from markets to people - are hard to predict.

This is one reason why experts in any domain become tiresome. As people learn more, they become harder to understand. Imagine you are asked to predict the behavior of a system - from an economy to the effect of summer cold on wheat production. There are three levels of understanding that will generate three different answers to the question, "What will happen when ...?"

1. "I don't know." At this level you might be able to define the system but you can't predict it.

2. "I know! It will ...." At this higher stage, you've seen the system respond to this variable before. You can predict based on the example or two from the past.

3. "It depends." At this, the highest stage of knowledge, you know that the influence of any one variable will depend on at least one - maybe dozens - of other variables.

And once an expert launches into his list of variables upon which the system depends, the average person begins to hear, "blah, blah, blah ..."

This is one reason that liars and people at stage two are more likely to be trusted than experts at stage three. They are easier to understand. They sound more confident. This preference is not certain, of course. Because whether or not people will prefer someone at level 2 to someone at level 3 depends on ... blah, blah, blah. But of course, I'm no expert.

Crystal's Analysis of Obama's Speech

Wonderful analysis of Obama's wonderful speech by David Crystal.

10 November 2008

Post-War Politics? Beyond the Peace-niks and Hawks?

McCain's loss was the fifth by a presidential candidate to have the better war record. (Bush 41 lost to Clinton, as did Dole. Gore and Kerry lost to Bush 43. Now, McCain loses to Obama.)

Obama did gain in the primaries for having declared the Iraq invasion absurd (or something to that effect). In that sense, it would be easy to see his election as an anti-war vote. But I wonder if it is something more.

What if we're beyond the anti-war and pro-war protests that marked the politics of the baby boomers and into something beyond that, a world where the first order of business is not to allocate half of the discretionary budget to defense or to get caught up in the false promise of beating UAVs into desktop computers? What if the argument between hawks and peaceniks seems as quaint to modern voters as the argument between advocates of bell bottoms and crew cuts?

[Now if R World had an editor, he would point out that this is a largely meaningless post. Or would he? Hm. I'm going to stay with it anyway, in spite of my imaginary editor's misgivings about the possibility that it says very little.]

09 November 2008

Bush Conspiracy Theory and Other Political Musings

Obama's election will likely do for the Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's of the world what Bush's election did for the Jon Stewart's and Dave Letterman's of the world.

The Northeast was where education was first made mandatory. The South was the last place. The Republicans' strongest support is in the South; the Democrats' strongest support is in the Northeast. Either we're going to have to stop educating people or the Republicans will need to find a new base.

Obama's biggest gain over Kerry's supporters came from voters 18-29 year old. His margin among these voters was 35%. Given that the policies of the next 4 to 8 years will do so much to shape the world of these 18-29 year olds, this seems like one of those moments of political justice.

Bush declared himself an ideologue - a conservative. He also declared himself practical. He's leaving office after presiding over the biggest increase in government spending since FDR and his final act of note is to nationalize the banks - the most visible instruments of capitalism. Either Bush is actually a Manchurian Candidate in the tradition of Buster Keaton (a slapstick conservative?), doing his best to turn a generation away from the conservative brand in an odd conspiracy of incompetence, or there is an inherent conflict between what is practical and the conservative ideology. Had Bush set out to intentionally damage the Republican Party and the conservative brand, it is doubtful that he could have done a better job. For all the fretting on conservative talk shows about Obama's leftist leanings, it is a wonder that no one has asked whether the destruction of the Republican Party was an inside job.

Ideology is what you use when you are tired of thinking. Everyone talks about how honorable John McCain is, and that may be. Nonetheless, he could only spout nonsense like "cut taxes" in the face of economic and financial turmoil. If "cut taxes" actually worked, the Bush administration would have kept us out of the current situation.

90% of McCain's support came from whites. The good news about the changing demographics of the US is that as the policies of this country are less accommodating to insular voters who assume that what is best is what makes the most sense to married evangelicals whose one trip abroad was to New York, we're more likely to be a true global leader.

Once the Republican Party decides to embrace facts as the starting point for its next version of policies, education may no longer divide supporters of Democrats and Republicans. (Think I'm wrong about the divide? As recently as 2000, the difference between Bush and Gore supporters' education levels was negligible. Think I'm wrong about the way the right has ignored facts? Their take on evolution and climate change has resembled the Catholic's 17th and 18th century approach to heliocentrism. I would argue that the Bush administration's attempt to bury the facts and argument of climate change was perhaps the simplest example of why dubya should be sued for malpractice. It is also perhaps the biggest reason that the Republicans lost so soundly among college-educated, young adults.)

I don't think that the Republicans will seriously consider reinventing themselves yet. For that, they'll need to lose convincingly in at least one or two more elections. We need a decent conservative party. We voters always need a choice between more or less government intervention - more or less spending - more or less taxes. The Republican Party that let itself be hijacked by George W. and Dick Cheney is not the party to offer that alternative.

President as Community Organizer - A New, 21st Century Model?

Every successful candidate allows allows the polity to project upon him as he (or she) nods and smiles. So, to interpret Obama now is as much a confession of hope as it is analysis. My confession? I rather hope that Obama re-defines the presidency along the lines of community organizer.

I find it curious that so little has been made of Obama’s background as a community organizer. Personally, I think that it offers a delightful model for modern leadership.

A community organizer has no formal power. The older I get, the more I think that formal power is a joke. Employees, citizens, players on a team … they all tend to do what they want. I realize that my own personality is ambivalent about formal authority, but I think more people are like me than not. Leaders have to work with people – not dictate to them. Formal power is gradually going the way of thumb screws.

A community organizer has a goal that transcends the organizations in that community. If you live in a good community, that suggests things about the families that live there, the jobs available, the aesthetic, the health care, the options for entertainment and engagement … it suggests a great deal that transcends any one institution or group. A community shows up in the spaces between traditional organizations – not within them.

A community organizer has to use conversation as a starting point for creating commitments. A community organizer needs to talk about consequences and the impact of one group upon another. A community organizer needs to create visibility – making visible the impact of polluting to industry and the impact of job loss to the environmentalists.

It’ll be interesting to see how Obama draws from his experience as a community organizer. I quite like the idea of his using the position – not as a bully pulpit so much as a local pub where everyone can gather to discuss what kind of a community we want to create.

Obama pioneered the use of the Internet, texting, and email for campaigning in ways that will be talked about for decades. Now he can be to the Internet what FDR was to the radio in his presidency - using new technology to enable virtual communities to emerge and impact real policy and physical communities.

And perhaps what I find most alluring about this model is the notion that a conversation about something bigger than any one industry or school could emerge. We have an array of possibilities that are still largely untapped because we take as a given that, to quote Lilly Tomlin, “We’re all in this alone.” What if someone actually could again make us a community instead of a collection of competing special interest groups and individuals trying to make it alone?

We live in a time of massive interdependency. This suggests the need for more coordination and unifying goals than ever. And yet the real measure of progress is autonomy – allowing each individual more freedom of choice about how to live. The one way I can think of to reconcile these two competing needs is through leadership that looks more like community organizer than elected dictator.

Let’s hope that Obama remembers his roots.

06 November 2008

Ex-Palin - New Word Alert

New Word Alert. Reports are that Sarah Palin did not know the countries that made up North America (Canada, US and Mexico) and did not know that Africa was a continent but thought, instead, that it was a country.

Yet on the campaign trail, she repeated assertions without explanation.

All that to say that we have a new word alert:

ex-palin, verb, 1. dogmatically making a claim for which there is neither supporting logic or data; 2. to repeat an assertion rather than actually clarify.

e.e. cummings - the poetic prophet of texting

i remember sometime in high school being taken by e.e. cummings disdain for capitalization and punctuation. it seemed to me stylish. of course at the time, i had no idea that an entire generation might adopt his style to communicate while typing into small, portable phones.

if e.e. cummings role as the prototype of texting were more clear, we could perhaps expect text messages like this:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e.e. cummings told us what is possible with texting even before it was invented. i, for one, will do more to reach for this standard.

O-bama-barded with Possibilities

My mind is abuzz with this shift in what is now possible. I have started probably 8 posts that all trail off into incoherence as I try to think through the implications of the new possibilities with an Obama administration.

I am a sucker for the story of progress - for the notion that each half century or so, life gets better. This non-linear, erratic, and messy process invariably results in a world that past generations could not predict.

The fact that a black is soon to be our president reminds us that progress happens and that what has not happened yet is nonetheless possible. Unprecedented does not mean impossible. That very notion - that what has yet to happen is possible - is intoxicating and the spirit of possibility that Obama's election helps to usher in may be as much of a catalyst for progress and change as any 20 specific policy proposals.

What if we started from the question, What is possible? rather than the question, What is wrong?

What if this country were again seized with the power of possibility?

What would be possible then?

04 November 2008

O! Bam! Ahhh!

Well, it is official. Obama won!

I can't believe how relieved I feel. The 8 years of madness - the 8 years of "is this really my country?" feeling I had watching the Bush administration. For tonight, at least, it is gone.

About two weeks ago, I was at my wife Sandi's school visiting her second graders. As we were walking, I asked some of them if they had seen the debate the previous night. One, A'Lyn - a 7 year old African American - said, "Yes!" "Who did you like," I asked. "I like the bla-" and then he stopped himself. "I don't remember his name." "Barack Obama?" I asked. "Yes!" he said. And for him and his generation, the fact of a black being elected president will do more to change his casual notion of what is possible than any batch of policies.

I voted for Libertarians, Independents, and Citizen Party candidates. Before tonight, I had only voted for one candidate to actually win the presidency - Bill Clinton. That seemed to work out pretty well. I have as much confidence in Obama's ability to assemble a team and articulate strategies that will get us back on the right course.

Enough said. I am going to dance a for a little while now and hope that the person in room 213 below me isn't trying to sleep.

P.S. I just watched his speech. How brilliant. Finally, a leader who is thinking about how what we'll do will shape the next century - rather than reacting to the last year. The audacity of hope indeed.

As he took us back over the last century, I was reminded of a quote from Buckminster Fuller.
"Projection is like archery - the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot."