30 June 2009

From Agricultural to Industrial to .... Bubble Economy?

The problem is not that financial markets are too mature and able to create too much capital and credit. The problem is that the corporation is too immature and unable to create profitable opportunities using that capital and credit. The result? Capital bids up the price of existing assets and we have a series of bubbles. Policy makers looking at financial markets will only see the symptom of this problem. We need to start talking about corporate reform.

James Fallows of the Atlantic talked to Nouriel Roubini, who spoke about the danger and increasing severity of economic bubbles.
“These asset bubbles are increasingly frequent, increasingly dangerous, increasingly virulent, and increasingly costly,” he said. After the housing bubble of the 1980s came the S&L crisis and the recession of 1991. After the tech bubble of the 1990s came the recession of 2001. “Most likely $10 trillion in household wealth [not just housing value but investments and other assets] has been destroyed in this latest crash. Millions of people have lost their jobs. We will probably add $7 trillion to our public debt. Eventually that debt must be serviced, and that may hamper growth.”

After talking about the dynamic of bubbles and how we've been dependent on them for growth, Roubini says,“'The question is, can the U.S. grow in a non-bubble way?'” He asked the question rhetorically, so I [James Fallows] turned it back on him. Can it?"

For me, the core problem is that we’ve created massive potential for financial stimulus but have not created a corresponding potential for translating that into new ventures. So, the financial clout is used to bid up the prices of existing assets rather than create new ones. This can’t help but create a series of bubbles, it seems to me. The problem is not that financial markets are too capable of creating capital. The problem is that business markets are too feeble at using that capital to fund innovation.

Businesses are not that interested in innovation and creativity. They prefer predictability. This is typical of fiefdoms run by the last of the monarchs. The dispersion of power within corporations to employees who would be eager to create equity would not only result in more innovation but would require more capital. Financial markets are capable of creating the credit and capital to finance new ventures at a faster rate: corporations don’t avail themselves of this, more often than not generating cash rather than consuming capital as if they did not operate in a possibility-rich environment.

As long as capital markets are biased towards the purchase of used securities – buying stocks and financial instruments for investments already created – we’re likely to see a series of bubbles. Once we get better at making entrepreneurship a normal part of the daily routine of business, we’ll still have bubbles but I suspect that they won’t be nearly as frequent or pernicious. And the foundational economy upon which financial markets rests will be more diversified and vibrant, offsetting the bubbles that do occur.

28 June 2009

Double Dip Recession - Courtesy of California

This recession has one more dip in it before it’s over. The problem doesn’t stem from Obama’s stimulus package: California’s fiscal woes will be the cause.

If California were a country, its economy would be ranked 8th in the world – smaller than France and Italy and larger than Spain and Canada. All of the ten largest economies in the world have adopted aggressive stimulus policies. All, that is, but California. This is going to undermine Obama’s efforts to stimulate the economy.

Californians recently voted against taxing themselves more and will now start slashing programs. For instance, professors within the state university system will be put on furlough and lose about 10% of their income. Layoffs, program cuts, and discontinuation of services will hit every community. These, just as the economic numbers for the US are looking better.

California’s contraction won’t be enough to completely de-rail the recovery. It will, however, delay it by one or two quarters.

Governor Schwarzenegger now finds himself in the same position as Gray Davis – the governor he replaced in a recall election. The problem wasn’t Davis or Schwarzenegger. California is the only state to require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for BOTH tax increases and budget approval. A small minority can hold the legislature hostage and the odds of finding agreement among 66.6% of the diverse population of Californians on anything – much less tax and budget – are close to 0.6%. Until this system is changed, California’s problems will continue and the requirement for balanced budget means that the state government will always exacerbate down turns and bubbles alike.

California’s budget problems are about to spill over into the rest of the nation. Expect the economic numbers to fall again in the Fall. And look for the cause in California.

27 June 2009

The Icons are Dead! Long Live the Icons!

I'll join the chorus of voices lamenting the loss of Farrah Fawcett (and my youth). Every generation conspires with the media to create a fertility goddess. Given that my generation may have been the last to make any real attempt to sublimate teen sexuality into something other than actual sex, the importance of Farrah Fawcett will be hard for the current (and future) generation(s) to fully appreciate.

For her critics who allege that her major claim to fame came from inspiring millions of high school yearbook photos, I will agree. But I don't think that this is a trivial feat. I think it was amazing.

I used to be disdainful of fashion but I now see it as the most fascinating form of art. It is one thing to shape clay or canvas or marble into something aesthetic. It is quite another to shape the public. Fashion has to use the mind first and then the form, whereas all other types of art create a shape or form first and then try to impact the mind. Fashion has to recruit volunteers who will be the canvas for the artist’s vision. And Farrah – for a few years and probably like no one since – was the inspiration for a very distinctive look. I can’t help but admire what she did. Plus, when her iconic poster came out I was 15 and that image seemed to me the epitome of beauty.

Poor Farrah was given only 15 minutes of eulogy, having the misfortune of dying just before Michael Jackson. In the roughly two hours between when I boarded the plane and then landed in Chicago, TV broadcasts seemed to have gone from non-stop coverage of Farrah's life and death to non-stop coverage of Michael Jackson's.

Michael Jackson - just a couple of years older than me - was actually the first celebrity to make me feel inadequate. I remember realizing how talented he was (even at 8 he had a great voice) and feeling woefully less as a person, me the child who had already dropped out of piano lessons, having abandoned a career in music about the time I began first grade, putting me in stark contrast with Michael.

I do think that a Michael Jackson tribute concert featuring only people named Michael Jackson would be interesting to watch. In that vein, here is a bit from the BBC from years ago, a reminder that Jackson will be hard to replace.

24 June 2009

Bernard & Maddie on Love as a Gale of Creative Destruction

It had been a long time since I'd seen Maddie. She looked bright eyed and greeted me with a wet kiss on the cheek. She had to be closer to 80 than 60, but her eyes shone in a way that made me smile.

"I have been thinking about love," her older brother Bernard announced in his inimitable way.

Maddie giggled. "Maybe if you hadn't thought so much about love you'd have done better with your three marriages."

"Well, there is nothing like being alone after three marriages to make a man think about love. Sometimes failure teaches you things that success can't," Bernard said a little testily.

"What have you learned," I asked curiously.

"Well, I don't know that I've actually learned anything. But in doing some economics reading, I found a phrase that sounded more like love than capitalism: gales of creative destruction. Schumpeter - an economist - wrote about how capitalism creates new industries like cars that destroy old industries like horse and buggies. Capitalism creates by destroying," he said. Bernard paused dramatically. "And I think that love does as well."

"You think that love destroys a person?" I said.

"The old you. Yes. You go into a relationship and the old you gets destroyed. In its place is a new you that works with this new person."

"That makes love sound exhausting," I said. "I think love is a very different thing."


"I think we underestimate the power of getting to be yourself in love. I think that love is finding a person who gives you a place to be you. Love is comfort as much as it is excitement."

"I don't remember love feeling all that comfortable. It wasn't really a place where I could let down," Bernard protested.

"Well no wonder your marriages didn't last," I said. "That kind of love sounds exhausting."

Maddie laughed. "If you do it right," she said, "there is no conflict."

"Conflict between what?"

"The two kinds of love you're talking about," she said. "Love as a creative destruction and love as a place where you could be you."

"How does that work?" Bernard said with what I would have sworn was a pout.

"Nothing's more transformative than getting to be you. Getting to really be you," her eyes shone. "If you suddenly find yourself with a person who lets you be you, it does destroy the old you - the you that berates yourself, that spends more energy scolding yourself than enabling yourself. You think it isn't, finally, transformative to find someone who is the place where you can be you?" Maddie laughed at us. "You think that you are two are talking about different things?"

"Ron," she looked at me, "it is not that you are comfortable getting to be you. You make it sound like something comfortable, Ron, like as if it isn't a lot of work to be the real you. Or, I guess, you aren't left comfortable with the old you. Aren't left feeling comfortable unchanged. Love has about as much regard for convenience as gravity has for grace. You'll be happier. You'll be more alive. You may or may not feel all that comfortable."

"So you agree with me," Bernard asked with naked excitement. Bernard, like all of us, had this tendency not to be able to hear anything after he'd expressed an idea, except as it related to what he said.

Maddie looked at him with a tender smile. Her eyes seemed to water a little. She touched his hand. "Sure, Bernard. I agree with you. Love creates a new you by destroying the old you. It's not afraid to call the old you retarded or dis-associate with it. It feels a little destructive sometimes, but ..." she trailed off.

"So you've known this for some time," asked Bernard, quickly turning her agreement into hurt that she knew this even before he did.

Maddie laughed again. "Bernard, Bernard, Bernard," she shook her head. "I didn't know it the way you said it. But it makes sense to me, yes."

Bernard paused and then he asked her, "Who transformed you? It wasn't Jacob, was it?"

"It was me," Maddie said. "I finally learned to love me and that changed everything." She patted his hand again. "You should try it, dear. It would do you good."

23 June 2009

Teachers' Behavior Management Tax

"I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated."- Poul Anderson

The math of relationships is one big reason that teachers dread large classrooms. While the number of students might rise gradually, the number of relationships in a classroom rises exponentially. This means that as classes get larger, teachers pay a higher "behavior management" tax and lose time they could otherwise use teaching.

If you have 15 children in a class, you have 105 relationships, any one of which could become an issue as simple as too much whispering and talking to something as complex as inappropriate affection or violence.

If you increase the number of children from 15 to 25 in the class (an increase of only 66%), the number of relationships triples. The math behind this is one reason that policy makers do so poorly with any kind of complex system: they tend to count the nodes (in this case, dynamic children) and ignore the connections (in this case the relationships).

This odd dynamic is true because when you add one child to a classroom of 15, you are not just adding 1/15th. You are adding 15 new relationships to the 105 already there. Each new child has a relationship to all the others.

The math looks like this

Adding another student is not just a matter of adding ONE more student. It is a matter of throwing the dice on, say, 20-some new relationships hoping that even one of these does not become a problem that adds to the behavior management tax. And if you throw the dice enough times, you are nearly guaranteed to have problems.

19 June 2009

Bernard On Chaos and Order and Two Kinds of People

Bernard looked pleased. With himself. I knew that he had a new idea. I could see it in his face. Plus he had called me to ask for me for lunch, saying that he had a new idea. Before I could even say good morning, he held up his fingers and said, “There are two kinds of people.”

“I know this one,” I said as I picked up the menu. “People you can neatly fit into a category and people you can’t.”

Bernard shook his head. “Why do you always look at the menu? You know what you’re going to get. We’re at DZ’s. You’ll look at the whole menu – all 54 pages or whatever it is – and then order the turkey Reuben with potato salad. Just put the menu down and listen.”

“Why do I feel like a studio audience out doing pro bono work,” I asked.

“Don’t be wise. You could learn something.” He took a bite of his cherry cheesecake before continuing.

“Wait,” I interrupted. “I am so late that you’ve already had lunch? You’re having dessert now?”

“Ha!” he pointed at his cheesecake. “This is my lunch.”


“What? I’m going to worry about cholesterol at my age? I had to choose between sandwich and dessert. It was a pretty easy choice.”

I ordered and then turned to Bernard. “Who are these two kinds of people?”

“People who like all the loose ends tied up and people who use the loose ends as decorative fringe.”


“I was reading a murder mystery the other night and it occurred to me why we like them. The normal world descends into mayhem and then, after some plot twists, the clues are solved and mayhem is explained. In a good mystery novel, all the loose ends are tied up. Everything is resolved.”

“But everyone likes a good mystery novel. So that's only one kind of people.”

“No. Not everyone. Some people prefer Douglas Adams, say. Fiction in which things start out fairly absurd. But instead of moving towards a resolution in which things become reasonable and the clues are all solved, the character and the reader finally buy into the notion that the world is more absurd than they could have imagined and reason is a thin veneer of delusion laid over top a story no one back home would believe. What appears to be order is actually chaos that has simply seemed to take on shape. Reality doesn’t become sensible, neat and tidy in this scenario. Instead, we change our expectations of reality. We learn to laugh at it, to enjoy it without making too much sense of it.”

“And so there are murder mystery novel fans and Douglas Adams’ novel fans?”

“There are two kinds of people. People who expect the world to be orderly, a place in which people and events proceed in predictable patterns. And people who just accept that the dust will never settle because this is a dirt road we’re driving down.”

I didn’t know whether to be appalled by his parade of mixed metaphors or to find it insightful. “Two kinds of people? The ones who strive for resolution and the ones who accept absurdity?”

Bernard paused to take another bite. “This cheesecake is fabulous,” he said, nearly moaning.

And then he looked into space. “Yes. And just now you helped me to figure out something more. These two groups need each other. We can’t always just accept and laugh. Nor can we always put things in order.”

“Nor?” I said. “You actually used the term nor?”

“You’re being obstinate again. Every time I make you think, you get irritable.”

“Or conversely, we need to be both of these people at different times, yes?” I added. I was more pleased with my insight than his noticing that my initial reaction to new ideas was inevitably defensive.

Bernard chuckled a bit. “One might say, “Grant me the discipline to put in order the things I should and the sense of humor to accept as absurd the things persistently chaotic."

“And the wisdom to know when to stop for lunch,” I said as my Reuben arrived.

We talked some more about politics and his granddaughter’s recent discovery of self improvement literature. And as our conversation wound down, I found the remainder of his cheesecake increasingly distracting. I calculated that it must have been at least four bites left, just enough to complete my meal. Finally, in what I knew was a show of poor restraint, I asked. “Are you going to eat that?”

“No,” he shook his head. “You can’t tidy up loose ends all the time. Sometimes thigns are best left undone.”

“You’re just going to leave it,” I asked more imploringly than I’d intended.

Bernard laughed again. “You think that you need something more after that big sandwich? Maybe it should be, The wisdom to know when to stop your lunch.”

He was right. Again.

80s Music as a Portent of the Future

I have seen the future. It looks like this:

Why do I think that this is the future? Well, there are flash mobs that get coordinated online. No one knows about them until a group descends, does its thing, and then disappears. As you can see by the faces, this kind of thing is at turns amusing and a little worrisome. The crowd doesn't quite know what to do in response. Part of that is simply the normal unease that comes from a novel situation without defined rules. But I think that part of it comes from a realization that revolution without a cause cannot be squelched and yet that kind of organizing power could be used for more insidious purposes.

It is almost as if they are saying, Just remember: we can organize and we can act.

And, as my buddy Beth writes, "We can bring spontaneous joy. In all shapes, sizes, and ages."

This is the future because it shows that we don't need an "organization" to organize. We can organize with information, with communication. This promise of the Web has yet to be fully realized. It will be. And it'll be fascinating.

[Thanks Beth for pointing me to this. And yes, I realize that this "flash mob" was actually organized by a real organization promoting a new MC Hammer reality show. But I still submit that this kind of thing doesn't require an organization. The promoters for MC Hammer's show got the idea from organic organizers. They just added the gold parachute pants.]

18 June 2009

Break Up the Banks

I supported giving money to the banks when the financial system was teetering on the cusp of disintegration. Most people still don't appreciate how devastating it would be to have our credit markets collapse. True, we lived without much in the way of credit decades ago: we also lived without running water, cars, telephones, education, and the years between age 47 and 77. (I'd already be dead if I'd lived no longer than the average life expectancy in 1900.)

But now the immediate threat of a depression - and perhaps even short term threat of recession - is beginning to fade. Leading indicators suggest a softening of the blow against the poor and our poor 401(k) accounts. It's now time for Obama to take his lead from Teddy Roosevelt and break up the banks.

Teddy Roosevelt remains one of my favorite presidents. Hes was unafraid of big business and one of his major acts was the break up of John Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company into about 30 smaller companies. (To give you some idea of the size of Standard Oil, just one of those 30 was Exxon - which recently set an all-time record for corporate profits. Imagine the size that Standard Oil's profits would have been last year.)

Obama ought to mimic Roosevelt and break up the "too big to fail" banks. The only thing we can afford less than propping up these huge banks is a collapse of credit markets, so the current banks have us hostage. If banks were smaller, we'd be able to let some fail without threatening the economy. (And yes you could insure depositors without insuring the banks themselves.)

If the failure of big banks didn't threaten the entire economy, we could take the advice of free market advocates and just let them fail. If the cost of propping up big banks didn't threaten the government's ability fund other initiatives (and make big banks even more comfortable with taking big risks), we could take the advice of Keynesians and prop them up with a sigh and a shake of the head. Given we can't let them fail and can't afford to fund them, it seems like the only real choice is to not let them exist.

As legacies go, this would do more for Obama than presiding over a depression or an era of government-owned banks.

Sex and Nudity in the News!

In local news, my wife Sandi's school is having Hawaiian Day tomorrow. All the kids are dressing up. I like the idea of giving other states a turn. How about Utah Day? I can picture the 8 year olds in white shirts, name tags, and neck ties going up to different classrooms and asking, "Have you thought about becoming a second grader?"

Hillary Clinton fell yesterday, breaking her elbow. Just a couple of weeks ago, Sonia Sotomayor fell and broke her ankle. Lesser bloggers would, in an "I'm not sexist but" tone, point out that politics at this level is perhaps a bit too rough for the ladies. I would like some acknowledgement for refraining such a cheap and easy shot.

Sirius XM radio now has an application for streaming 120 channels directly into the new iPhone. Sadly, though, listeners cannot get NASCAR radio in this version. Why does that strike me as something as relevant as McDonald's not offering wheat grass?

David Letterman told a joke that offended Sarah Palin. Now protesters are asking for him to resign. I think that should be the new standard for deciding whether or not a comedian has employment: do his jokes offend Sarah Palin?

In Iran, where citizens prove their society is less developed than ours by protesting a lack of democracy rather than protesting comedians' freedom of speech, they have a Supreme Leader. A Supreme leader sounds so much better than our Regular or Mid-grade leaders. And if Sarah is unable to get a position determining which comedians get work, maybe she could get a position on Iran’s Guardian Council.

The GOP continues with its outreach program, doing what it can to attract minorities by showing a fun sense of humor.
"Wednesday, flanked by members of the NAACP, Columbia GOP activist Rusty DePass apologized for the Facebook remark that likened first lady Michelle Obama’s ancestors to an escaped Riverbanks Zoo gorilla. On Tuesday, Mike Green, an employee with Lexington GOP consulting firm Starboard Communications apologized for an online joke about President Barack Obama taxing aspirin 'because it’s white and it works.'"
One can almost picture GOP leaders frantic to understand blacks watching rap videos for clues about the right things to say and do.

[Okay. I admit it. There was neither sex nor nudity mentioned in this post but I was shamelessly trying to get your attention.]

16 June 2009

Stories Never Written

I felt like a headhunter on facebook, a dog watching television, a possum who'd had too much caffeine. I was more than confused. I was lost.

Despite her circumstances, she had a certain kind of dignity and style. The kids on the block called her the baggett lady.

Since they had started dating, he'd gained 15 pounds. He could never tell her this, but each time they kissed he was hit with the strong smell of curry. By the time he left her place, he would be ravenous. They now knew him by name at the little Indian restaurant on 6th Ave.

At first he thought she was open-minded. As it turns out, though, she simply had a nervous tick that made her nod excessively.

Jerome had finally found proof of Obama's evil intent. He'd run the tape of his speech backwards and even though Jerome spoke no Arabic, he knew in his gut that once he got this translated, he'd be able to expose Obama's nefarious scheme. Just listening to his voice backwards gave Jerome the chills.

Andy liked Lacrosse. He would like it better, though, if just once the girls would paint their faces and come running at each other from opposite ends of the field, their sticks held high like that awesome scene in Braveheart.

Mind is just sound, Thurman reminded himself. Mind is just sound. Still, it was not a pleasant sound. He could not disagree with any of the points Judi was making about how difficult he was live with. There were times when he wished that he didn't even have to live with himself, so he could hardly fault her.

He believed in aromatherapy. He knew just what smells calmed him and that was why he again found himself at Volare's, deeply breathing in the smells of pastas and pizzas, sauces and oils. The doctor had warned him of cholesterol but he knew that without the periodic calming effect of this trip, his blood pressure would be much higher.

He knew next to nothing about investing. For the longest time he thought they were saying "foreign-one, okay?" Whoever dreamt up the plan to let every American manage his own retirement account had failed to consider how intimidating this might be for people who had resorted to taking mathematics for poets as a way to meet graduation requirements.

15 June 2009

Changing the Rules of War

I'd like to propose a new rule for war. Why not limit battle to those who are over 75?

This would have at least three benefits. One, it would mean no longer cutting short the lives of the young. Two, it would create a new kind of arms race: rather than just spend on defense, countries would be motivated to spend on health care, doing all they could to keep the 75 and older crowd vibrant, strong and healthy. And it would mean that when you spent more on war you would almost automatically spend less on retirement, helping with deficit reduction.

Of course, that would mean that the world's toughest job would be the new job of carding heavily armed soldiers to confirm that they really are over 75.

[And thanks to Sarah for posting a picture of her son in uniform, thereby provoking this thought.]

Love: Billy Collins' Poem Excerpt

When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

You can find the rest of the poem here.

14 June 2009

Virtual Production - Turning Consumers into Designers

One of the big problems with car companies is that it takes so much time and money to change models in response to changes in taste. Car companies make bets on design and technology up to a decade before the products reflecting those choices debut on the market. Markets change but the car companies hardly turn on a dime in response. They are more like those movie car chase scenes in which cars miss turns and run over lawns, onto sidewalks, and through parks and run over small cabanas, driving straight while the road turns.

Modern technology might make it a little easier for car companies to move with market demand.
It'd be interesting to develop simple-to-use car design software and make it publicly available on the Internet. Users - everyday customers - could make their own designs and people could vote on these - or even tweak them to win more votes.

Coincident with this, at a particular stage you could have people "bet" on the designs by making deposits, putting earnest money down on a car before GM or Ford or Toyota even begins to make production plans. Money "bet" on designs would fund next steps of development. Designs that made it progressively through various stages of development to actually make it to market would then offer payback to investors in this early stage. Betting on the right design at the onset might yield, say, a 100 to 1 return, whereas getting the "bet" wrong would result in a loss of the investment. Investors would be able to bet more precisely than just buying GM or Ford stock, steering the company towards specific models and designs.

Further, if your design was one that moved into production, you might win $1 million or even more. You might get a portion of the profits. (And yes - this could even attract the attention of car designers from inside your company. So what? Why shouldn't employees who help save you from billions in losses get an extra million or more?) So the car companies would turn their production capacity into a tool to reflect demand by rewarding both design and trend spotters who invest.

It would seem that if car companies could make as much of their at-risk design work less risky, they’d be less likely to put billions into creating cars that no one wanted. Let the designs fail when they are still virtual rather than, five years later, when those designs are sitting on show room floors.

12 June 2009

Post 1,000!

About 1,000 days ago, I began blogging. This, my 1,000th post, seems - rather recursively - to be itself cause for a post.

Ron's Top 12 Reasons to Blog

Politics (is mentioned in 24% of the 999 previous posts)
This is a democracy but an immature one. Why immature? Chiefly because we are given choices far more often than we are given the freedom to create. Would you like vanilla or chocolate we are asked at election time, as if dessert were the question rather than exercise or entertainment or something salty.

Right now we have self-determination in the individual sphere and mostly acceptance of reality in the public sphere. To reach a point at which we know how to engage in dialogue that creates jointly determined communities will take democracy beyond our present state of choosing between party-defined options.

And this will begin with a participatory journalism that takes commentary about politics from institutions like newspapers and TV and gives it to individual bloggers. This is easily the most exciting time for politics since the emergence of Democracies in the century between 1776 and 1861.

Absurd (19%)
The older I get the more convinced I am that so much of life – so much of you and me – is absurd. How seriously we take ourselves. How carefully we follow rules evolved out of earlier times and circumstances for different people. How ridiculous is the human drama of giving in to or resisting the animal impulses that seem to simultaneously mock and anchor our more idealized and lofty selves. This is to say, laughter still seems to me the best response to life.

Policy (13%)
Absurd is a great segue to policy: to point out that society is just a game is, of course, one big step towards changing the rules. Society is invented, just made up; policy and laws and rules and culture are ways we create this game.

Policy is essential but boring. Software crashes if the code is poorly written. Policy poorly played crushes rather than nurtures individualism, obstructs rather than facilitates the human experience, creates waste where it finds abundance, and leaves unimagined the unlived life. One reason for my optimism in spite of how much I find absurd is that we’ll find a way to better engage the imagination and reason and passion of communities in the formulation of policy through the use of simulation. The oldest simulation device is still with us, of course: that is the story. We write to lament what could have been and cheer what might still emerge.

Bush (12%)
My favorite quote from the 2008 election? Picking up on Molly Ivin’s claim that Bush was born on third and thought he hit a triple, one Senator said that Bush found himself on third and promptly stole second. One more reason for optimism? Although the man-boy left massive bills and destruction in his wake, Western Civilization may yet survive. I choose to make this mean that civilization is wonderfully resilient.

Social Evolution (10%)

Why is this such an exciting time to be alive? Because the pace of progress has accelerated so much that we may well be the first generation to be born into one age and die in another. To return to medieval Europe would be like traveling to Mars. The past is a different world. So is the future.

I still think that there is something akin to DNA for society and that evolution traces back to changes in four factors: land, capital, knowledge and entrepreneurship. The next society could be the first intentional society. We will get to witness and be part of social evolution as has happened only a few times before in history.

Barack Obama (7%)
This is a shockingly high number of posts for the new president, given that for more than half the time I was posting he was not in the public eye (which is code for – I didn’t know about him). I still have hopes for this man. He might yet be a great president.

Iraq (7%)
Perhaps the most epic non sequitur of all foreign policy history: the party that didn’t believe that government could effect changes as relatively simple as lifting people out of poverty or mitigating racism chose to use government to transform a totalitarian regime with theocratic impulses into a shining light of democracy in the Middle East. This will remain Bush’s legacy – proof that ignoring complexity might be the best way to create really complex situations.

Finance (6%)
The revolution of the last century was not religious or political: it was in finance. We created a new kind of capitalism and by century’s end, the individual was able to get credit, insurance, and investments that were available only to the elites at the beginning of the century. Like all revolutions, though, people got hurt. And continue to. We have yet to learn that the point of finance is to enhance autonomy and choice for individuals – not to enhance the prestige and profits of banks (anymore than the point of politics is to enhance the prestige and power of the king). Finance is wonderful and we’ve yet to fully realize what options it opens up to us.

Media (5%)
Blogging is the new media. Media is the old blogging. Facts are quickly becoming boring and for good reason: we want to know about realities we could create, not the ones that already exist. Right now we’re toddlers at creating a new reality, often conflating vision with hallucination, fantasies with goals. We’ll get this right yet, though. And it will do more for our sex appeal than whiter teeth. Media will become an instrument for testing policy and provoking hope: it’ll be the beta test product for societies that have yet to emerge.

Economics (5%)
Economics is where culture and habit and technology and wants and ability all spill together to create society. We are products of systems and progress is an odd dance between the individual and the system in which she finds herself. If we get the next stage of social evolution right, we’ll have an economy that is sustainable and that enables autonomy rather than is voraciously consuming what it can’t replace and fuels fear and conformity. Again, I am wildly optimistic about the possibility of creating this.

Business (4%)
We have freedom of religion for the believer – not just the pope or imam. We have freedom in the political realm for citizens and not just aristocracy. It’s time for freedom within the realm of business for employees and not just entrepreneurs: it is time to popularize entrepreneurship and extend the power of social invention to a broader swath of people. This will begin within the corporation. It’ll be a business revolution. If we don’t have it, we will collide with reality in spectacular and disastrous ways. Maybe one reason for my optimism is that I feel so strongly that failing to capture this opportunity will have such dire consequences.

Bernard (4%)
Perhaps my optimism has already given me away as someone whose psyche is suspect. If that were not enough, I did not get my first invisible friend until my mid-40s. I have become fond of dining with Bernard, learning what he has to say. I would even go so far as to claim that he is, in some very real sense, another person. Perhaps Bernard is my future – an old guy hoping to be taken seriously. Or perhaps he is just an opportunity for an alternate me to unfold into the world of time and words, a person who cannot appear in the world of time and space.

And this blogging adventure brought with it at least one major benefit I did not have the imagination to anticipate when I began about 3 years ago. I have become friends with so many of you fellow bloggers – people I now consider neighbors in this world of words. I have loved this odd forum and getting to know you. Welcome to my 1,000th post party. Grab a seat and join the conversation. Oh right. You already have.

Thanks to those of you who've guest blogged, regularly commented and given me great material to read and respond to:
Allen, Lifehiker, Thomas, Holly, Chesca, Milena, Cody, Pinky, Emily, Dave, Sarah, Norman, Damon, Ben, and Daryl.

And of course, thanks to Sandi for putting up with my penchant for thinking with my fingers so incessantly (and even for those nights when I've typed in my sleep upon her skin, waking her without a decoder ring to decipher what nocturnal message I've sent.)

09 June 2009

Religion and Politics (Alternate Title: The Devil is in the Details)

The thrice-married, at least once affaired, Newt Gingrich announced last Friday, "I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States, because only in the United States does citizeship start with our creator." He also told the group at the "Rediscovering God in America" conference, "The first job we have as Americans is to reach out to everybody in the country who is not yet saved, and to help them understand the spiritual basis of a creator-endowed society."

The general consensus is that Newt is positioning himself to win the vote of the religious right to ready himself for the Republican nomination in 2012. Personally, I think that the press takes the wrong approach in reporting on and questioning this approach.

One can point out that we either allow people to choose a "godless" existence or enforce religious laws, as we did in the early colonies or even more effectively in Medieval Europe or as some Muslim countries do today. We might even have the temerity to point out that as civilizations become more "godless" (as rates of church attendance drop, etc.) rates of teen pregnancy drop, affluence increases, and tolerance means more civil harmony and less violence. But that might just be the wrong approach.

Maybe it's better to heartily agree with Newt and then ask him, So what do we do? Whose God do we align with? Newt has recently converted to Catholicism. Is he wanting us to align with the God who speaks through the pope? How about the Old Testament God who suggests capital punishment for homosexuality and eating shell fish but allows slavery? Or does he suggest that we disband our military, taking seriously John the Baptist's admonition to soldiers to "do harm to no man?" Does he suggest that we not make it as hard to enter heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle by not allowing anyone the spiritual burden of becoming wealthy? Which God and which verses does he recommend we turn into law or, at the least, use as a guide for our laws?

I suspect that once we put the religious right up before a national audience and pinned them down on details of what they mean by bringing the nation closer to God, it would be less appealing to anyone - even those on the religious right. We live in an age when thousands (yes, thousands) of new religious denominations spring up each year because we cannot agree on details, on issues, on what is important and what is trivial.

At this point, I'm genuinely curious about what it looks like to bring this nation back to God. If we were still 90% Catholic or Anglican or Muslim or Jewish, such a statement might almost make sense. But in today's world, it is not the least clear what this means.

I don't know what it would mean to get God back into car design or astronomy or medicine or education or politics. Such a claim makes no sense to me. Perhaps the best way to get beyond this odd desire for divinely-inspired policy is to appoint a panel with a variety of religious leaders and thinkers and have them get back to us with a comprehensive and detailed policy platform. Maybe Newt could be president of that.

07 June 2009

Anticipatory Journalism

Events are moving fast enough, we need journalism that reports the future.

Commentary is useful because it goes beyond what is happening to report on what should or could happen. Done well, it is more thoughtful than mere reporting. Before saying what could be, I'd like to point out what seems to be the problem with most commentary.

I've wearied of Keith Olbermann. He's become like Rush Limbaugh - rushing to point out all that is wrong about the right. Someone like Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek regular, shows himself more thoughtful, global, and insightful, but he's merely doing with less venom what Olbermann does - making judgments about policy and politicians.

What seems missing is a vision of the future. What if journalism transcended reporting on past events - looking in the rear view mirror - and instead projected news into the future? Better yet, what if it actually compared this with some vision of the future?

This would more firmly take us into the region of partisan journalism. But it would force journalism into a really valuable role. Two things are true of today's world: events are rapidly developing and the stakes for getting policy right or wrong are huge.

If we had different periodicals or TV stations or newspapers offer different coherent views of the future, they be more readily able to interpret events. Christian fundamentalist news outlets do this best, of course - judging events by end time prophecies and warnings of immorality. But it is time to do this for more secular views.

What if one periodical predicted a future of environmental sustainability with an emphasis on change in lifestyle? Local produce, use of alternative energy, and living close to work could be among the solutions seen as instrumental to a vibrant and healthy future and policies and events could be interpreted through this view of the future. Another periodical might predict a future of sustainability through technological solutions, another (the one Dick Cheney might edit) would predict a future of scarcity and the need for the haves to protect themselves from the clamoring have nots, etc.

Such an emphasis would do at least two things. One, it would give us a good filter through which to judge policy. We'd have a consistent basis for judgment. Two, it would force different communities to elaborate on and defend the desirability and reasonableness of their view of the future. Because in truth, if you don't have some sense of the future, you have no basis for judging current events.

For too long, journalism has pretended to be objective, as if the context for reporting and judging events doesn't determine everything from the tone in which it'll be reported to even deciding what should be reported.

But most importantly, we need to create a nationwide conversation about the future we're creating and the future we ought to create. As different news outlets compete for market share using this model, they would essentially be competing for visions of the future. The winner in this competition would not just win market share: it would gain influence over policy and vision and become the forum through which we define our future. Now that would be valuable journalism.

04 June 2009

Airlines Do Their Bit to Fight Obesity

The seats are small - at least for Americans which, as near as I can tell are their target market. They no longer serve meals. And now, my dear wife tells me, the Airlines are planning to make the seats smaller still.

I can only conclude that the airlines have decided to do their bit to promote fitness. And of course, if they can lower the average weight of American passengers by even 5%, that has to translate into fuel savings enough that they might even turn a profit. As much as I resent their methods, I have to admit to grudging admiration.

Maybe if they set up pedals that we could use to generate electricity for fans and lights they could accelerate this process.

03 June 2009

401(k) Accounts: Putting Off Paying Tax to a Higher Tax Rate Era

It’s not enough that baby boomers have just lived through one of the worst years in stock market history. It also seems that they’ve been duped on the tax-deferment scheme of 401(k) accounts.

The idea behind a 401(k) is not that you avoid taxes. It is that you defer them. Many people lose track of this, but if you put money into a 401(k) account today, you pay no taxes on what you invest.

For example, assume that your household income last year was $100,000. You put $10,000 in a 401(k), thereby avoiding $2,500 in taxes (25% marginal tax rate).

But you have to pay taxes on the capital and return of this invested amount when you retire. The general assumption is that your income in retirement will be lower so you will pay taxes at a lower marginal rate. You save by getting in on a lower tax.

Today Bernanke announced that the projected debt to GDP rate is unsustainable. Deficits will have to come down. Given that our last four “conservative” administrations (Nixon, Ford, Bush and Bush) failed so spectacularly to slow the growth of government, it seems inevitable that reducing deficits will ultimately mean raising taxes.

What does this mean for baby boomers? They might just have avoided lower taxes for higher ones.

I find it perfectly plausible that the people who avoided $2,500 of taxes when working will pay $3,500 in taxes when retired.

Stuart Smiley in Purgatory

Al Franken hasn't won until the loser cries uncle. Given the Democrats have taken a stand against waterboarding, it's not obvious that there is any effective way to get Norm Coleman to give up his fight for the Minnesota Senate seat.

There is, however, a tactic that Al Franken might use that just might work. He could show up each day at Norm Coleman's house and, like a suburban missionary, stand on Norm's stoop and mock him anew with daily affirmations.

"Norm," he could say, "you are almost good enough. You are almost smart enough. And doggone it, nearly as many people voted for you as they did for me."