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."

03 November 2008

Obama & McCain - What the Astrologers Say

The polls at fivethirtyeight.com predict an Obama win. According to them, Obama has a 96.3% chance of becoming president in early 2009.

But for those of you who don't trust polling data, there is something more convincing: excerpts from the horoscopes for Obama, McCain and their running mates for tomorrow.

Obama’s 4 Nov horoscope

You may be accepted as just the person for a particular job. If you have always been the follower, you may find yourself a leader today. As a leader, you could appoint a co-leader to help you plan and coordinate. Radical and inventive ideas hold the key to realizing your ambitions and advancing your status--a shake-up could be in the works. You draw emotional sustenance and a sense of security from friends who give you support. Your relationships and partnerships are very important to you. They are capable of transforming you at the most basic level. A time of real inner growth is encouraged through other people.

Biden's horoscope suggests that he might be working with the younger Obama on foreign policy issues. Biden's 4 November horoscope.

Your communication skills are energized this morning. Your timing should be perfect and those around you should find your responses are lively. Concerning relationships, you are entering a phase of emotional directness--one marked by powerful feelings. Emotional beginnings, a fresh start, perhaps the establishment of new habit patterns--make sure they are good ones, because they will set the tone for you for quite some time to come! This evening there is time to enjoy a favorite hobby. Rearranging, organizing and perhaps trading with someone that enjoys the same hobby will be part of this preoccupation. Doing something nice for a loved one makes you feel good about yourself this evening. This may involve helping a child with homework.

McCain's 4 Nov horoscope

Report any difficulties as you see them and ask for help to create a friendlier atmosphere. This may bring an end to the problem or at least ease the problem. Change happens and in time the situation will become non-existent. Working through problems seems to be the order of the day and hard to avoid. It is good you are understanding and can be helpful in the work place or at home.

It doesn't sound good for Sarah Palin either. She may be looking at a career change that includes tupperware or amway? (Of course, if McCain Palin pull off an upset, this working in your own home may take on a diferent sound.) Her 4 Nov horoscope

Ambition and achievement can be a tough path to follow. You win reward, recognition and authority through hard work and knowing the score; otherwise, you may wisely realize that someone hungrier and in the know will overtake you. Who owes what, who owns what and who decides what, are some of the major issues for you today. This could be a time of developing ideas for working out of your home. You have a deep yearning to express your talents and may feel that you are held back. Working in your own home would place you in the roll as your own boss. Talk to people that have a business in their home; go to conventions where home-based businesses are advertised. Careful--someone you work for or with could be a new customer

It is hard to construe this as anything but positive news for the Obama camp. And really, what could be more reliable?

02 November 2008

True Love & Gratuitous Socks - Allen Warren Guest Post

I had the good fortune to meet Allen when working with a client in Oregon. Allen is a full human being - compassionate, silly, thoughtful, principled and able to make a woman and three boys feel loved while working a job that would overwhelm the brains and patience of the vast majority of us. Allen is, quite simply an easy man to love and I'm delighted that he wrote a guest post here at R World, providing us with a perfect heart warming story for cooler weather.

I’d like to take a moment and share a story about a person I have the honor of working with, Sarah, a sweet lady whose actions constantly remind me of one particular scene in the movie “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. In the scene the two men were in Egypt gazing at the vista of the pyramids when Freeman shared the ancient Egyptians belief that when they come to the gates of paradise in the afterlife they will be asked two questions, the answers to which determine whether or not they are admitted. The first is, “Have you found joy in your life?” The second question turns out to be similar but more gripping: “Have you brought joy to the lives of others?”

Two months ago Sarah informed me her mother’s health, which I knew had been up and down for the last few years, was on the down side and wasn’t going to come back up this time. Sarah was telling me this because she was going to need to spend a little more time w/her mom getting her set up with Hospice and such.

2 weeks ago Sarah updated me with the news her mom would probably pass on very soon and therefore Sarah would probably be out a few days. But Sarah’s tone wasn’t sad or morose because Sarah’s mom had been physically suffering the last couple of years and everyone, including Sarah’s mother, was looking forward to the day when there would be no more pain.

I asked a fellow co-worker and good friend of Sarah’s, Deanna, what we could do for Sarah, her mom and her family. I didn’t want to send flowers because . . . well . . . whereas Sarah would think flowers were nice, that type of material sentiment isn’t her style. Fortunately, Deanna came through with a GREAT idea, just as she always does. Deanna spread the word among Sarah’s closest co-workers and the GREAT idea took off from there.

Below is the email Sarah sent to all of us upon receiving the “condolences”:

To all of you who were involved in the “socks as condolence gift operation” – thank you. J It was soooo amazing to return to work and see – not flowers, not cards – but socks. I can’t tell you how much it means to me – and how it reinforces the idea that despite all of the challenges we face, sometimes, this really can be a Great Place to Work – because of the fabulous people.

A couple of you have asked for a bit more of an explanation of the socks.

I’m part of the community at a nondescript place on 6th & Burnside (in Portland, OR) - the Downtown Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul (www.downtownchapel.org). There’s a tiny Roman Catholic parish there, but most people in Old Town know our little corner for the hospitality services that are open to absolutely anyone as guests or volunteers.

When I began volunteering there ~5 years or so ago, about 25 people would come on an average morning for coffee, donated shampoo, or perhaps a change of clothes or help with a bus ticket home. On the day my mom died, 107 homeless people (many of whom are also mentally ill) came to morning hospitality. About 125 people each week come to get a bag of donated food (some of which comes from the Oregon Food Bank). Five years ago, we gave out perhaps 20 bags of food per week.

About four years ago, a volunteer began a once-weekly foot-washing ministry for 2-3 people per morning who wanted to experience it. After carefully washing their feet, she would give them a pair of clean, dry socks. Another volunteer quickly noticed that for people who live outside, foot-care can often provide a very inexpensive and non-threatening means of assessing health. Now, three mornings a week a room is full of nursing students from the University of Portland or Linfield College’s School of Nursing. They wash the feet of many, many more guests, and also have diagnosed diabetes, broken bones, systemic fungal infections, and even gangrene. Through this simple intervention and the relationships that are built between our guests and regular volunteers, we’ve been able to help some people get medical treatment they wouldn’t have sought on their own. And yes – everyone who comes in can get a free pair of dry socks, which are so essential in this climate, especially in the winter.

My mom may have passed, but the socks that y’all donated are a bridge from my work family to my family on the streets – two groups of people who mean a lot to me. The socks are a very, very special gift – and I thank you all so much.

When someday Sarah stands at the gates of the afterlife, I have every belief the 2nd question will never be posed to her as the answer will have been long-ago filled in.