30 September 2009

Modern Corporation: modeled on the medieval church

In two earlier posts, I concluded that the medieval church became evil. This matters because the medieval church is still a model for institutions who could follow it down the same path. It is difficult to overcome a blueprint at the foundation of Western Civilization, a blueprint referenced in the design of the modern corporation. The medieval church had popes and priests who discerned the will of God and directed the congregants; the modern corporation has CEOs and mangers who discern the will of the market and direct the employees.

The US represents for many the apex of progress yet 84% of people here are unhappy in their jobs.

Job dissatisfaction hardly compares with burning at the stake. In the grand scheme of history, it is a fairly petty and pathetic complaint to be unhappy at work. Yet if one can’t enjoy what one does all day – what defines one’s life – it makes one question the progress up to this point. Is this really the culmination of thousands of generations of genetic and social evolution? Or could it be that the transformation of work and what it means to create value and to be valued is the next personal frontier, the domain for the next revolution?

About a decade ago, I went into GM to do some training and consulting work. I left appalled. The managers were conscientious and the employees seemingly sincere and yet they seemed more like parents and children than consenting adults. The distribution of power constrains employees from acting like adults.

The corporation – GM and nearly every business – could learn something about needed change by looking at the huge transformation of the church over the last half millennia.

Two big changes to come out of the Protestant Revolution were the entrepreneurial approach to religion and the shift in authority to the individual. These two are inextricably linked.

Post- Protestant Revolution religion is wildly entrepreneurial. Luther claimed that we are all priests and the germ of this idea – the notion that individual revelation and conviction ought to be the root of religious belief – continues to spark new denominations. The World Christian Database tracks 9,000 denominations.

In terms of freedoms granted, the church may be the most evolved and modern of our institutions. Churches either meet the need of their congregants or the congregants go elsewhere – or nowhere. It is not just freedom across religions but within. Even people who call themselves Catholic can profess and practice very different things from each other.

If the medieval church is the model for the current corporation, we can hope that the post-Protestant Revolution church is the model for the future corporation.

There is a great deal that will be different in the next version of the corporation, but most of these changes will begin with a shift in the notion about where authority ought to lie: in central authorities or in the individual. It means trusting the individual with true freedom. All the needed design changes for the corporation can follow from this profound shift.

29 September 2009

Processed News in its Purest Form

On a flight home the other day, I put down my book (Michael Connely's Scarecrow) about an investigative reporter losing his job to watch a movie (Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in State of Play) about an investigative reporter being demoted before coming home to read an article about the death of investigative reporting(The Story Behind the Story by Mark Bowden in this month's Atlantic).

Where the individual was once left to form an opinion about well researched stories, the news outlets have seemed to leap past all that nuance and boring litany of facts and endless prose. Instead, the modern media just provide you with an opinion with minimal time spent investigating or actually reporting.

Well, I've lived on the coast long enough to know that it's easier to ride waves than fight them. So, if investigative journalism is dead, maybe it's time to just go with this trend and offer media 3.0: all opinion, no news.

The point would be to simply provide the reader with their reaction to the news events, without hassling them with all - or any, really - of the facts. Like processed food that skips the actual food to simply provide you with fats and sugars, this news would skip directly to opinions. It might work like this.

Obama's Health Care Plan: you're outraged. (And it's true, really. Whether you can't believe what he is proposing or the opposition he's facing, you're outraged.)

Asian typhoons and tsunami earthquakes: you are so saddened by this.

Iran's plutonium enrichment program: outraged.

Toyota's recall of 3.8 million cars: shocked!

Potential reversal of Jon and Kate's divorce: outraged

These would not be headlines that are followed by stories. These would be the stories.

You get the idea. The one real weakness, of course, is that people may begin to realize that they have a fifty percent chance of not needing the service if they simply choose to be outraged at all the news. But for those readers who want to spend 30 seconds finding out just what ought to outrage them today, it would be an invaluable service.

This might just be the future of journalism. [Oh, and for the record? You should be outraged.]

27 September 2009

Maddie on Socialist Networking Sites and Bernard on Republican Drug Dealers

It had been too long since I'd met my favorite senior citizen siblings for lunch. Maddie was the closest thing I knew to an idiot savant in the social realm: she seemed profoundly insightful about love and tragically misinformed about politics. Bernard, by contrast, was a deep (if sometimes unorthodox) thinker when it came to politics but seemed perpetually baffled by relationships. And yet they were delightfully fond of each other, and I of them.

Maddie shook her head, “And now these socialist networking sites are all over the Internets.”


“These sites like myface,” she said. “I heard Glen Beck call them socialist networking sites.”

“Um,” I began, hardly knowing where to begin. “You mean facebook and my space?”

“Whatever,” Maddie said. “I just think it’s awful. They’re indoctrinating all these young kids who spend so much time on the computer.”

Bernard scoffed. “Maddie, you have to stop watching nut jobs like Bleck.”

“You mean Beck,” Maddie corrected him.

“Yes,” Bernard said unrepentantly. “Bleck.”

“So you think that Obama is a socialist,” I asked.

“Don’t,” Bernard rose his hand at me, looking disgusted, “get her started” he finished in a whisper.

Fortunately, Maddie did not say much. She just touched my arm and leaned in to say, “Oh honey. Everybody knows that.”

“If only Joe McCarthy had known is was so easy to spot a socialist," Bernard shook his head. "The new definition of socialist is someone who wants to increase government spending on something other than aircraft carriers. You know what’s really wrong with this country,” he asked.

“Country music station in every town and not a single folk station to be found anywhere,” I asked.

“What does he mean by that,” Maddie asked, turning to Bernard with a look of confusion.

“Nothing Maddie. He’s just talking nonsense.”

I almost protested but realized that until the waiter came with his food, Bernard was going to be cantankerous. His blood sugar was low.

“What’s wrong with this country, Bernard?”

“Politics have been hijacked by the drug dealers.”


“Nobody can raise taxes. Not Obama and certainly no Republican will do it.”

“As if Republicans want to raise taxes.”

“You’re too young to remember that under Eisenhower, a Republican president, marginal income tax rates were 91%. Republicans didn’t use to be just about lower taxes. We liked balanced budgets and social responsibility too.”

“We?” I was shocked. “You were a Republican?”

“Well, sure. Any thinking person was. But now Republicans don’t even have an ideology. They just have a mantra. And it’s worked to hypnotize the masses. Nobody even questions the inane premise behind it now.”

“Republicans are not ideological?” This threw me even more than his claim to have been a Republican.

“They don’t have an ideology. They have a chant: lower taxes! Lower taxes!” Bernard pounded the table like a soccer hooligan as he chanted.

“Finally,” Maddie said, “you are on board.”

Without missing a beat, Bernard asked, “So Maddie, what level of taxes would be ideal?”

“Well you just said it, Bernie: lower.”

“And there you have it,” Bernard announced with a flourish. “Chanting ‘lower taxes’ regardless of whether your marginal rate is 91% like it was under Eisenhower or 28% like it was under Reagan – without regard for policy needs or deficits – is not an ideology. It is political Tourette’s – a vocal tic that means nothing.”

“I’m lost, Bernard.” And I really was lost. I was trying to make sense of the jump from drug dealers hijacking politics to the lower taxes mantra. “What does this have to do with drug dealers?”

“Well, who benefits if we underfund government to the point that it can’t be sustained? Where else do we see low taxes and weak government?”

“Well, there is Mexico just over the border.”

“Exactly!” Bernard jumped up. He always seemed so relieved when I caught up to him. “Taxes there are about 18% of GDP – about half of ours. And the government is, like Colombia’s, essentially at the mercy of drug dealers. They own the country. And the government is too weak to fight back.”

“So you think that the guys behind the anti-tax movement are the drug dealers?”

“Yes! With a weak government, the drug dealers are like Machiavellian princes. They live in luxury and without constraints.”

I paused. “That’s a crazy idea, Bernard.” He waited me out. “But I have to admit it makes sense.”

Bernard was looking more calm now, halfway through his turkey and avocado sandwich. “And really, what better example of the ideal of unregulated markets than the drug trade,” he asked.

“So you think that the Republican Party has been hijacked by drug dealers?”

“Who better to hypnotize a population past the point of thinking?” Bernard shook his head. “This is not your grandfather’s GOP.”

Republican Recalcitrance

As Obama tries to win over the Republicans on his health care reform, it is worth remembering how the votes in Congress fell when Clinton passed the legislation that reversed decades of deficits. Not a single Republican voted for his plan. Gingrich led opposition in the House and Dole in the Senate, where the vote was 50-50 (Gore broke the tie).

Clinton was not, as the Republicans would now want you to believe, forced into deficit reduction by Newt. Advised to lower interest rates, he was instead reducing the deficit in order to win over the Fed (Greenspan could lower short term rates) and bond traders (who could lower long term rates). His strategy worked and helped to stimulate the greatest expansion of the last century.

When Clinton left office, the projection for the surplus through 2015 was $4 trillion. In what now seems almost comical, Greenspan was worried about what would happen when there were no T bills as an investment option. By the time Bush left office, the projection for the same period was a deficit of nearly $4 trillion, a reversal of about $8 trillion (which would fund Obama's health care plan for 80 years - an entire lifetime).

Newt's biggest play for spending reduction was to make drastic cuts to Medicare in the wake of Republicans winning the midterm election in 94. Clinton called his bluff on this, defending health care for the elderly to the point of a government shut down. The result was a rise in the polls for Clinton and a drop for Gingrich and the Republicans.

It is lovely that Obama is inclined towards including the Republicans in the formulation of a health care plan. The lesson from Clinton's presidency,though, may be that the Republicans will simply be an obstructionist party and Obama has to give them a deadline by which they should either come along or stay behind.

25 September 2009

Lute's Law for Changing the Status Quo

Reading In Search of Bill Clinton: a psychological biography, there is an account of how he helped facilitate the peace process in Northern Ireland. One of his aids gave him some really fascinating advice.

Clinton is debating whether to give Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, a visa for entry to the US. Every president before him has denied it. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, is considered a terrorist organization and not only would the British and the Republicans be outraged at this, so would members of his own cabinet. Yet Clinton's’ advisers in Northern Ireland thought it was key to moving forward in the peace negotiations. (The Prime Minister of Ireland essentially reached the same conclusion months earlier. The Irish PM ditched his bodyguards to meet with the paramilitary groups on both sides. Everyone said that he should not meet with them because they were terrorist groups but he said they were the ones with the power and if he wanted to make anything happen, he needed to meet with them.) When Clinton asked one adviser why she thought he should grant Adams a visa, she had a really provocative answer.

“Because no one expects you to,” Jane Holl Lute told Clinton. “Not even Adams. Everyone expects you to say no. So there’s a card you have to play. And if you say yes, everyone will have to recalculate, including Adams.”
To change the status quo Lute believes that you have to do the unexpected. “People make plans based on expectations. If you fulfill their expectations, their plans don’t change. But when you do the unexpected, you force everyone to alter their plans, including yourself, by the way. And that’s OK.” The other person who agreed with this analysis was Adams, who said of his visa: “It was a change that now everyone had to react to. It shook up the status quo.”

Lots of other factors came into play, but today, in Northern Ireland, Clinton is widely lauded for his role in ending “the troubles.” Many analysts think that without this one move, the process might have de-railed.

How would I state Lute's Law? The status quo is supported by expectations. To change it, do the unexpected.

24 September 2009

Curious Fact About the Antichrist

Recent poll reported: 18 percent of self described conservatives believe Obama is the Antichrist.

It is hard to imagine this sort of opinion popping up in other realms, like music or the office. Imagine Simon of American Idol being able to tell 18% of the contestants, "Your singing is positively awful. I think that you are the Antichrist."

Or worse, this actually showing up as a box on your annual performance review. Your boss would not even have to check the box - just its mere inclusion would be enough to intimidate a person. Can you imagine the lunch room conversations as employees speculated madly about which employee prompted management to add this? Or even worse, being that employee. "We're going to have to let you go, Carl. We suspect that you're the Antichrist." How would you answer the next employer who asked, "Why did you leave your last job?"

23 September 2009

Why the Medieval Church Became Evil

The medieval church may have been a necessary evil in the progress of the West, but it was still evil. It’s worth reviewing how that happened, because it represents a pattern. Quite simply, when individuals are forced to conform to the institution, rather than the institution to the individual, the institution starts down the path toward evil.

The Roman Empire was formed atop of many nations and the Romans often just incorporated the local god into their pantheon of gods. Religious tolerance was a given and variation expected.

We now know that in the centuries after Christ, a great number of gospels and letters emerged. Some of these, like the Gospels of Thomas and Judas, had disappeared completely until discoveries just last century.

But this variation that was a part of the ancient world was squelched. Forcefully. The Inquisition was instituted in 1233 and by 1252 the church had authorized the use of torture to impose conformity of thought. As late as 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned alive for sharing his beliefs about moving atoms, an infinite cosmos, memory, and imagination. The goal was to crush heresy, defined as any dissent or deviation from Church teachings, and the Church was not squeamish about the use of force to protect its dogma. Over the centuries, the treatment of heretics included the rack (being stretched until every joint in the body had dislocated), burning at the stake, and being skinned alive.

Torture was consistent with the teachings of St. Augustine, who felt that the “main point was ‘not whether anyone is being forced to do something, but what sort of thing he is being forced to do, whether it is good or bad.’” Punishment was justified “because ‘the unrighteous man’s grief in his punishment is more appropriate than his rejoicing in sin.’” Torture was of little consequence in comparison to an eternity in hell: if pain caused one to recant from heresy, it was a gift. Once a community accepts the notion of one truth about eternal salvation and one authority entrusted with its revelation, every kind of coercion and evil naturally follow.

How did the church become evil? By suppressing variation and oppressing the individual. This is always the surest route to evil, no matter how petty the path. It is possible that it was a necessary evil but it bears repeating that it was, in any case, an evil. Any institution able to seize one's property or children and torture or kill to coerce thought and belief can hardly be given any other label.

The evil crept into the church in small steps. It wasn't evil for individuals to say, "I believe the gospel of Matthew but not the gospel of Thomas." It didn't seem particularly evil for a group of individuals to get together in a council to reach an agreement about which books to include and which to exclude to promote a "right" way. And once that was in place, it did not seem so evil to urge conformity on the congregation, or to resort to expulsion or even violence to spare the congregation from the influence of a heretic (simply someone whose beliefs are not orthodox). Over centuries, though, the cumulative effect of these little steps became clear.

And this meant that before real progress could begin in the West, the church had to be radically changed. The revolution that overturned its monopoly on thought and action would prove even bloodier than its oppression. Encompassed in the Protestant Revolution and Reformation, this challenge to the medieval church gave birth to a new world with new rules, one that offered the individual opportunities never before given to the common man.

22 September 2009

The Medieval Church: a necessary evil

I’ve taken my shots at the medieval church. Anyone who knows history has read of the atrocities. Heretics were burned at the stake, scientists were muzzled, and suspected witches were stretched out on the rack, forced to confess to the impossible. Where the church had a firmer grip on the community – in places like Spain and Italy – business and science fell behind the places – like the Netherlands and England – where there was more religious freedom. It was a wonderful thing to emerge from the control of the church. This is, however, a very different statement than saying that it was an awful thing for the West to come under the control of the church.

It’s worth remembering the condition of the West when Christianity became ascendant. I would argue that the church, however evil we now consider it, was an improvement on what came before.

The Roman Empire was powerful and made life comfortable – for a few. The economy and quality of life depended on slaves, conquest, and exploitation. Whatever one might say of the animating beliefs, it is not obvious that one could ascribe the golden rule to Rome: slave holders and colonizers hardly did onto others what they wanted done to themselves. (And this disinterest in the other is a major obstacle to the emergence of markets.)

Tribes like the Huns, Visigoths, and Vandals who gradually dismantled and conquered the Western part of the Roman Empire knew more about conquest than creating and sustaining a society as complex as the Roman Empire. Europe descended into the Dark Ages as Rome disappeared.

So this is the world as it was found by a medieval church with growing authority and influence. This world was awful. It is one thing for armies to know how to raid a village to take the food and women – it is another to know how to raise crops and children. Life was brutal and short and reliant on force. By our standards, the medieval church may have seemed oppressive, but its emphasis on caring for the weak and its insistence on order in thought and deed must have saved many a life.

It was from this starting point that freedom of thought slowly emerged. Order was created by the authority of the church. (In medieval times, the majority of the issues that the pope had to address involved property rights.) Imagine that each landlord or land owner was his own little government and you can begin to imagine the confusion surrounding even the disputation of the smallest conflicts. The church’s generally accepted authority saved many conflicts from becoming violent.
Obviously the religious wars fought in Europe to wrest control from the medieval church (and, initially, put it in the hands of a Protestant church that was typically just as dogmatic and violent) were atrocious. But again, the baseline of comparison was not the level of violence in Berlin or Paris today.

Was the medieval church evil? Only if it was compared to the community that evolved after its rule. But looking at it in the context of what preceded it, it might well be that the West had no better path to progress.

The golden rule might be at the heart of a market economy. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” puts one in the frame of mind of the other. It encourages a kind of empathy that can also be used for commercial gain. “People want a cheaper or better …” involves thinking about the perspective of the other, the consumer, and is the first step in developing a business plan. Concern with – and response to - the other is essential to markets.

NO LIE! Joe Wilson is my new hero

"You lie!" Joe Wilson hollered out in the middle of Barack Obama's address to Congress. Talk of racism quickly emerged. People who hate Obama or were frightened by the thought that everyone might get health care all ran to Joe's defense. But even the Republican Party elders rebuked Joe, who then called Obama to apologize.

I hope that Joe's outburst is a harbinger of things to come. I say this for two reasons: one, presidents need to be treated more like regular people and it is time for some face to face debate.

I thought that President Clinton was great, thought President Bush was awful, and am hopeful for President Obama. But one thing they all had in common was this incredible swagger once they'd been in office for any length of time. It's hard to remember that you're just a guy when you are the leader of the free world. But Clinton screwed up (and I don't just mean with Monica), Obama is stumbling and Bush had his moments when he did the right thing. Nobody is the simple label we affix and it does no one any good to sustain the odd tendency towards deification or vilification. (After World War II, more than half of the Japanese thought that their Emperor was descended from God, or gods. An even higher percentage of Brits thought the same thing about their queen. Think we're smarter than that? The painting in the Capitol dome is of George Washington transforming into a god, titled The Apotheosis of Washington. Some part of the reptilian brain loves to deify victims and heroes. It might be the same part of the brain that loves parades.) I loved that Joe Wilson basically said, "Look, you might be president but that doesn't mean we have to applaud every inane thing you say."

And that brings me to my next point. A president makes a statement to Congress and he gets applauded throughout. Even for the most gratuitous comments. And then once the speech is over, the Republicans group over in one corner, the Democrats in another, (and Independent Bernie Sanders, presumably, goes off to play solitaire on his computer) and they reinforce the views they came in with. What's lost is the opportunity for real dialogue, for exploring alternate views while sitting face to face with each other.

After Joe Wilson's little outburst, some commentators said, "It was like British Parliament." Well, other than the wigs, I think that the spirited debate in Parliament would be the one thing that I would most want to import from Britain. Done right, spirited discussion can actually bring people together. It is one thing to disagree. It is something else entirely to not even understand or hear others.

Sadly, Joe Wilson's little outburst didn't further the idea of debate between opposing worldviews. Rather, it just led to more firmly defined lines of battle. I'm just a lowly blogger, Joe, but let me say, from the other side of the debate, that I like what you tried to do.

15 September 2009

Learning Obesity

My wife Sandi teaches second graders in one of the poorer parts of San Diego County. To demonstrate their serious approach to academics, the school focuses the children all day on classwork. Once a day they get 15 minutes to play outside. Once a week they get 45 minutes for PE. At least they have video games to play when they get home.

It's a good thing they'll be literate. It'll help them to decipher those complicated forms they make you fill out when they begin to treat you for conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

What are You Feeding Those Kids?

I recently read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, a wonderful account of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The World's Fair buildings were astounding, huge and distinctively beautiful. This fair was the first to have a midway and a Ferris wheel (a massive structure that stood higher than the Eiffel Tower, the Americans' effort to outdo the French and their World's Fair from just a few years' prior).

One of the men who worked to create this magical, happy place was to tell his son all about it years later. The worker was Eli Disney, Walt's dad.

Today I heard Dan Brown interviewed as he is promoting his new book, The Lost Symbol. He said that his father teaches math and when Dan was young, his father would construct puzzles for the children to solve that led to clues that would point them to the presents. Christmas morning was a treasure hunt - which Dan Brown admitted is essentially what he recreates in his books.

Makes a person wonder what we're feeding the kids. What possibilities and dreams are we waking? What aspirations are we provoking?

I'd explore this more, but I'm going to watch Sponge Bob.

11 September 2009

The Deification of the Dead

Those of you offended by irreverence may want to skip this post, but I'm starting to get seriously annoyed at the deification of the dead from 9-11.

Today family and volunteers read the names of the victims of 9-11 in New York. Obama went to the Pentagon and said, "In pursuit of Al Qaeda and its extremist allies, we will never falter."

Nonsense. All of it. Every year, about 2.5 million Americans die. Some violently. Some in stupid accidents. Some gracefully of old age. Some from treatable diseases and some of bad treatment. There are two things true of this: deaths usually leave grief in their wake and over time people move beyond that grief.

If you lost a loved one on 9-10 in an auto accident or to cancer or homicide, your grief is private and you have the option to dwell on their death or to move on each year as the anniversary comes. You are not forced to engage in the pageant of national mourning for cameras each year, as you would be if you had lost a loved one on 9-11 to a terrorist attack.

The people who died in those buildings were no different in character than the roughly 20 million Americans who have died since that event. Some were rich and some poor. Some were annoying and some calming. Their families have already received an inordinate amount of money from Congress for having had the wisdom to lose their loved one in a national tragedy rather than something less outrageous.

I flew today on 9-11 and pulled into the gate in San Diego at 9:11 east coast time. Maybe I just had too much 9 11 today. I now return you to the mainstream media and people like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, suave media experts who are smart enough to save their outrage for easy targets, like politicians.

09 September 2009

11 Talking Points About Health Care

Health care reform is complex. Blog posts are simple. Hence, I might have a compatibility issue as I tackle this topic. I have to admit that at times I find the debate amusing: it is almost as if we have fourth graders debating (silly?) string theory or mortals debating eternal life. Which is to say the health care debate represents life at its most absurdly normal: people writing and talking about issues we don't really understand. And how could I pretend to resist such a temptation?

Here’s a list of points you may want to throw out at a dinner party – like incendiary conversational devices. This is not an attempt to solve all the health care problems nor offer a comprehensive plan (just one more way in which blogging is better than being president):

1. A country that offers health care that makes people more vibrant, relieves pain and delays death is more moral than one that does not. As the richest country in the world, the question of offering universal health care is not a matter of affordability. It is a matter of morality.

2. It seems essential to define which kind of health care coverage we're saying is a right that everyone deserves and which is a luxury that only the rich or those committed to spending all their money on health care deserve. Our health care is like an 18 wheeler - big, complex, and able to handle the oddest conditions thrown at it. Everyone deserves transportation, but maybe we should guarantee a Vespa and not a Peterbilt truck. You can't legislate everyone into the lifestyle of the rich.

3. What kind of administrative costs and price insensitivity would we have if we used our auto insurance for every auto-related expense, from filling up to changing spark plugs, and not just for serious accidents? Would you care whether gas was $2.44 a gallon or $4.42 a gallon if you had a $5 co-pay in either instance? Maybe it is time to insure everyone from catastrophic costs and nobody from regular costs? This might drive more competition into health care. [This is essentially the interesting point made by David Goldhill in the September issue of the Atlantic.]

4. It is ridiculous to talk about funding health care while we're still subsidizing detriments to health. Can you say corn syrup? As long as we're talking about subsidies, how about making fresh fruits and healthy foods as easy to find and as affordable as are candy bars and unhealthy foods? What about offering blackberries and raspberries in prime condition in as many places as skittles?

5. You cannot steer a parked car. We've been debating health care reform for decades and passing legislation at this point is not "rushing into reform." We need to start with a plan and modify as we go. We're never going to get legislation that everyone likes nor a program that works really well from the start. One reason to accept compromised health care is to get moving towards better health care.

6. A huge portion of health care costs are incurred in the final months of life. Maybe we should promote religion in this country. If people were religious and hoped for heaven, they would be less intent on taking every measure to extend life by another week or day. [Wouldn't you think?] Either that or we could refuse to spend money on anything but pain medication in the two weeks before a person died. [I will just say that explaining the technology behind the technique of determining this date deserves its own post.]

7. If we have a health care system and we have illegal aliens here, they will have access to it. In the same way that if we have a system of roads and highways and illegal aliens are here, they will have access to it. This is not a fact that lies or outrage will change. Get over it.

8. For every $100 we spend on beating back disease, we should spend $10 on promoting health.

9. Any discussion of health care that ignores the importance of mental health ignores a leading cause of death and dis-ease. (Suicide is the cause of more violent deaths than war and homicide combined.)

10. As we become more advanced, we'll likely spend more on health care - from longer lives to whiter teeth. We can't automatically assume that spending a greater percentage of GDP on health care is a bad thing. Would our society really be better if we spent additional dollars on more clothes or entertainment rather than more health?

11. Universal health care can actually help make the economy more dynamic. Employees who did not have to stay with one employer in order to keep their health insurance would have more freedom to make employment changes and take entrepreneurial risks.

9! 9! 9!

I feel like I just have to comment about today's date. 9/9/9.

There. I commented.

Somedays I really love not having an editor.

08 September 2009

Love's Little Memorials

Yesterday, I was listening to live music from various friends and acquaintances, a delightful concert that featured about a dozen acts. So many of the songs were, of course, about love; love lost, love gained, love that could have been, and love that sits at the back of your throat as words you’ve never quite had the courage to utter. As the configuration of musicians and singers changed from song to to song, there were, at times, ex's collaborating. The unsung love song about relationships lost and realized in the real lives of the singers and musicians was at least as poignant as the lyrics we heard.

And as I’m watching this, two things occur to me.

One, we have war memorials to commemorate lives lost. Why not also have breakup memorials to commemorate loves lost? Why should the parks only mourn the dead? Why not the relationships lost and whole lives never lived? When someone turns away from love, something real is lost. And its worth mourning. Might it warrant a statue? Why not a park to commemorate lost loves?

And then a second thought occurs to me. We do commemorate lost love. I was sitting there listening to these love memorials. That is what so many songs are. No wonder we pay such close and frequent attention to songs. It’s not a statue, but on the other hand, nobody walks around the kitchen humming a statute.

If anyone ever asks you about the difference between a committee and a band, you tell them that committees commemorate war with statutes and bands commemorate love with songs. And nobody ever asks, Hey? What is that committee’s name?

04 September 2009

Writing a Blog is Like Wearing a Pocket Protector

Apparently, writing a blog is like wearing a pocket protector: proof that one has not kept up in reading the memos that inform us about what has fallen out of fashion. A recent version of Harper's Index mentioned that 94% of all blogs have not been updated in the last 4 months.

Apparently most would-be bloggers need actual readers. That seems to me rather like deciding not to golf on weekends until a quiet but respectful crowd follows you from hole to hole.(And just for the record, that is why I don't golf. I tried it once and the adoring crowd failed to materialize.)

Those of you expecting some recognition for blogging should be sobered by this simple fact: even the spell checker at blogspot does not recognize the word "bloggers."

Obama Wants Your Child to be a Black Socialist

Obama will give a speech 8 September in which he plans to encourage school children to become black socialists. The right is outraged.

I wonder how long it'll be before they change the name from "the right" to "the could-you-be-more-wrong?"

How To Save a Trillion Dollars

One of my most awkward moments teaching seminars came in an event that included a contingent from a chain of pawn shops. The "finance" company wasn't called a pawn shop, but that is what it was and they had been making a ton of money. When I learned how they operated - a lunch time conversation - I challenged them. This did not go over well and made the next 2 1/2 days awkward. Pawn shops in Florida (and I suppose most states) can essentially charge exorbitant rates to people desperate for money. Even credit card companies cannot charge such high fees. But because they are not banks, pawn shops' interest rates are not regulated like banks.

After the Great Depression, the government regulated banks to make financial markets safer.

After World War II, nonbank corporations found a way around that regulation by offering many of the same products and services as banks. This has proven problematic. Not just to people forced to pawn their goods but to the economy as a whole as the offerings of nonbank corporations has grown to more closely resemble that of commercial and investment banks.

Elizabeth Warren, Obama's expert on consumer finance, a woman who knows her stuff, has written a piece explaining how the Obama administration is passing legislation that will regulate products and services regardless of whether they are offered by banks or nonbanks.

The great news is that the Obama administration appears to be on track on making the reforms that will make it less likely that we'll need bailouts that cost trillions. Financial market regulation has been overlooked for too long. The sad news is that they have to start by solving such seemingly obvious problems.

02 September 2009

Productivity Matters (Debt Not so Much)

Compared to 1945, today's

GDP is 65X larger
consumer debt is 444X larger
the value of mutual funds is 12,400X higher

GDP measures income and the mutual funds are one proxy for wealth, perhaps the simplest measure of the middle class's involvement in stock and bond markets.

A great deal is made of how much debt we have. Debt still seems to suggest opprobrium of some kind, but it is an instrumental part of a financially sophisticated society. Would the world really be better if no one purchased a house until they had saved the full amount to buy it outright, or if no one pursued higher education until they could do it without a loan or didn't take that beach vacation until they were in their 70s? Debt enables options and the modern access to credit means that the person going into debt needn't explain his or her reasons to anyone: only convince someone they can repay the loan.

Keep your eye on productivity instead. If we produce more, we can have more, whether it comes in the form of profits or salary or taxes and is taken now in consumption or saved for later as investment. With that in mind,

"The US Department of Labor reported that non-farm productivity grew at an annual rate of 6.6% in the second quarter, higher than economists expected," at the highest rate since 2003.

Might we be laying the foundation for real progress? Or would such a prediction sound so pollyanna-ish as to get my blogger's license revoked?

Time for Wife Swapping on Pennsylvania Ave.

If Obama is really serious about stimulating the economy, he'll take a cue from the folks who make network TV and boost his ratings with wife swapping. If he can get the leaders of France and Japan to play along, we might yet put a stake in the heart of the Great Recession of 2009.

Nothing seems to boost network ratings quite so much as reports of bizarre or sexual (or best of all, bizarre sexual) behavior in political figures. No one has yet calculated just how much of the boom in the 90s traced back directly to the rise of 24 hour news channels covering Clinton's sexual peccadilloes. We love our heroes but mostly we love to imagine we're superior to them.

In a couple of weeks, Japan will swear in a new prime minister. The big story is that the Japanese, weary of a decade of economic stagnation, have voted out their long-time ruling LDP to give the Democratic Party a chance. But the really interesting story is that the prime minister's wife claims to have visited Venus on a spaceship and to have known Tom Cruise in a former life (when he was Japanese). I can't help but feel fond of her in the same way that I can't help but like J.K. Rowling's character Luna Lovegood. I find these sorts of odd confessions fascinating, and don't think that I'm alone in this. If she were the American first lady, all forms of news media would likely be getting record ratings.

If Obama were to swap wives with Japan's new prime minister for a couple of months, he could then swap with Sarkozy, who, after being elected president of France, cashed in all his alpha male chips on a union with Carla Bruni, the gorgeous actor, singer, and occasional nude model. It is hard to imagine a one-two punch better for ratings than this quirky then sexy sequence.

Imagine the news coverage on this. NPR could explore the cultural clash as these iconic French, Japanese, and American figures adjusted to each other. They would likely even teach us some new foreign words and phrases. Fox News could throw in hints of misogyny and speak to the erosion of traditional values. The various outlets could explore different dimensions of this, from new recipes and dress styles in the White House to the different views of these exchange first ladies on American social programs and sports.

It would not matter too much whether Obama began with the Japanese or French first lady. The exact order is not important. Nor would it need to be limited to just Japan and France. I don't know too much about other first ladies, but surely a handful would hold our attention as much as these two. I just know that if Barack and Michelle are sincere about stimulating our economy, they would not quickly dismiss this bold suggestion. After all, if this nation's leaders are not going to listen to bloggers, how can we even call this a true democracy?

01 September 2009

Failed State or Failed Nation? Out of Afghanistan

Next time you are at a dinner party, or in a group of people talking politics, try this question: "What do you mean by nation building?" It is, presumably, our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is a term we barely understand as a concept, much less as a project. The failure in Afghanistan is a failure to distinguish between a nation and a state. We are seemingly trying to build a state atop a set of tribes rather than an actual nation. It is little wonder that the state is unstable.

George Will has called for the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He very simply points to the problem that Bush never did, and Obama has apparently yet to realize:

The U.S. strategy is "clear, hold and build." Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.

I doubt that many of the reporters covering the Afghanistan occupation could explain the difference between a nation and a state. We have, for so many generations, lived in a nation-state that we've largely forgotten the difference between the two.

The state is the government. It is the police and army who keep order, the civil engineers and legislature who create highway systems, the administrators and teachers who provide education, etc.

The nation is a people who share an identity. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck became legends because they built nations out of a collection of states (Germany was formed out of various states in 1871 and the United States was confirmed in 1865 at the close of the Civil War). It is a slow process to create a sense of national identity. The British resorted to (among other things) King Arthur legends. The Germans had the Brothers Grimm. The Hungarians had Bartok. The stories and shared identity of a nation, a group of people who will willingly submit to a central government, take decades to form in even the best of times. Nation building - creating a US out of states as different as Georgia and Connecticut, or a Germany out of states as different as Bavaria and Prussia - is not obviously the work of armies. It is as much the work of poets and story tellers as it is generals. (And this was a large part of Lincoln's genius - he was able to tell the stories and give the speeches that reassured "Americans" that there was, indeed, such a thing as Americans.)

A nation-state is a people (a nation) who share a government (or state). It is possible for one nation to share many states or for one state to share many nations (an empire, for instance).

Afghanistan is not a nation. It is a collection of tribes. The next line in George Will's column is

Military historian Max Hastings says Kabul controls only about a third of the country -- "control" is an elastic concept -- and " 'our' Afghans may prove no more viable than were 'our' Vietnamese, the Saigon regime."

There was a time in American history when people saw themselves as Virginians but not as Americans. This is true today for the tribal people in Afghanistan. It's not obvious that there is an actual nation in Afghanistan and as a result they have what can only be called a failed state.

I would disagree with George Will's conclusion that we ought to just sit outside the borders and disrupt their military activity with drones and missiles. I still think that there is a role for us - but in very limited ways.

If there is a trick, it would be to find the "people," the tribes or self identified groups, who are ready for help and want to develop. Afghanistan is an idea that British bureaucrats had generations ago (it is the same story in Iraq), and not an idea that has ever seemed to emerge from the people inside its borders.

This will be slow work and will be better done by Peace Corps volunteers than soldiers, I would guess. If Afghanistan were already a nation, our troops would likely do a great job helping to build a state. This is the kind of thing we did well in Germany and Japan after WWII. But given there is no nation there, our troops have almost no chance of building a state.

Last month, American troops suffered their worst level of casualties since the occupation began about 6 or 7 years ago. The reason we have made no progress on the ground is that we have made no progress in defining the mission. The real question is not what is state building. The real question for Afghanistan is what is nation-building and how do we do that. Failing to realize the difference between building a state and building a nation, it is no wonder we have failed to even begin the project.

I am not defeatist about nation building. I think it is a fascinating problem and one that we'll need to address in places like Afghanistan. We don't want another 9-11 and it is cruel to ignore the plight of people who live such nasty and brutish lives. I am not defeatist about nation-building but I'm not at all convinced that it has much to do with state building - or, rather, can depend on just the efforts of troops to build states. We have to stop treating state building and nation building as if they were the same thing and begin the really fascinating conversation about what it would take to engage in nation-building.