28 March 2011

Taxes Fall Outside of Historic Range - But are Still Too High

Like a murder of crows, politicians and talk show hosts endlessly caw about the debt as a consequence of rampant government spending. Usually in the same breath, they decry high taxes. 

It's worth pointing out that - at the federal level at least - taxes have never been so low. Not just the lowest they've been in the lifetime of our president but outside the control charts set since his birth.

Companies use control charts to distinguish between common cause and special cause variation. Simply put, a control chart shows normal variation in a process. It can be applied to a factory floor to track defects, a high school to track dropout rates, or even to tax rates for a country. 

The control chart below shows tax rates as a percentage of GDP since 1961 - the year our president was born. 

Put simply, this suggests that any administration ought to be prepared for tax rates as low as 15.4% or as high as 20.8%. Taxes always varied within in this range. 

And then two things happened. One, the Great Recession lowered taxes. Two, and more importantly, conservatives finally institutionalized tax cuts as an annual rite, like virgins offered to the volcano. Obama, unable to end occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq but able to institute Universal Health Care, continued George W.'s blind adherence to cutting taxes no matter what spending was required. 

Do we have record deficits? Yes. And spending does play a part in this. But the part that every politician and the media seem to blithely ignore is this: taxes have plummeted below their old range. Not just their lowest, but lower than any reasonable prediction would have suggested even four years ago. 

I could opine at length about this. For now, I'll just point out these facts. You consider whether there is a good reason to believe that the lowest federal tax rate in all the developed world should have suddenly fallen to a new,and even lower range. 

Not So Much Unreasonable As Its Own Reason

It might be that you’ve found your personal reason if it seems unreasonable to everyone else.

Some things you do might do for money. That’s a reason everyone gets.

Other things we do for no extrinsic reason but just because of their nature. That, too, is a reason that everyone gets. We revel in a hug or great music, savor food or beautiful art simply because that’s part of the human experience.

Finally, there are things that you do simply because that is who you are. How can you explain why you’re compelled to write poems, play the ukulele, make fun of jokes, walk the high wire, juggle, or collect found art that others would categorize as junk? If there is no reason outside of the thing itself, it might just be your own “raison d'etre,” or reason for existence. (Or at least one of the reasons.)

If, by contrast, you have a reason for doing the thing other than that thing itself, it might just be that you’re still at least one level removed from your true passion.

To others your passion might seem unreasonable but perhaps it is simply the case that the thing is not so much unreasonable as something that is its own reason. 

23 March 2011

Get a plot before they put you in one

He and his friend Jerome had their own religion. They believed that we are all caught in an elaborate story written by a deity / screenwriter who had invented far too many characters. So many characters, in fact, that he could no longer provide properly engaging plot lines for them all. The point, then, was to attract this deity's attention so that he would notice you and provide you with more interesting character development arcs and plot twists. In short, the goal of their religion was to gain celebrity and, failing that, notoriety.

First you got celebrity, then you were given a plot. And this religion was not purely an act of faith. Their proof of its validity was the contorted and often fascinating paths that the lives of celebrities took.

He and Jerome even had t-shirts. "Get a plot before they put you in one," it read.

18 March 2011

Heaven or Hell?

What if eternity is a place where you live among people who may be a different gender, of different skill sets and abilities, different races and styles, but who, in terms of how they fundamentally live their lives,
  • have no more (or less) compassion than you
  • are no more (or less) loving than you
  • are no more (or less) mean or thoughtless than you
  • do no more (or less) than you to realize their own potential
  • put no more (or less) effort into life than you
  • are no more (or less) brave than you
  • are no more (or less) selfish than you
  • do no more (or less) to make themselves or the world better than you
What if, in short, you lived for eternity in a world where no one was any different than you in terms of the emotions they evoked or nurtured? What if you were the only one who had the power to define whether it was heaven or hell and you only had that power now? 

The really important question is whether that possibility comforts or frightens you. What you might wish were different in that life could be something you ought to think about changing in this one.

Not a Smart Phone

"Yeah right," he heard the voice say in the pause after she declared her love. This was the first hint that something was wrong.

It started with little quips. "You wish," it would say when someone had just done a little advertisement for themselves. "As if," and "Oh really?" were common interjections into other's comments.

Finally, when he heard it tell a client, mid-conversation, "Your family is so dumb that during the Civil War you fought for the West," he realized why he had gotten such a good deal on this ridiculous phone. He hadn't bought a smart phone. He had, instead, accidentally bought a smart ass phone.

17 March 2011

Seasonal Music

Today I got to listen to Celtic music. It was grand. Curiously, Celtic music is - like Christmas music - a seasonal offering that's hard to find on the airwaves at any other time.

It made me wonder what it would be like to live in a world in which all music is seasonal. 

"What's that music we listen to in July, around Independence Day, with the guys who miss their mama or girlfriend and just want to drink to forget?"
"Plus they love their country. Don't forget the patriotism."
"Yeah, that."
"You are talking about country music."
"Yeah. It would be great to hear that now."
"Don't be a fool. That's still 8 months off."

Love songs, of course, would be played in the weeks' leading up to Valentine's Day. Folk music would be played around Labor Day, the music of the working man. 

Rock and roll - the music of release and anarchy - would be the music to kick off summer around Memorial Day. 

I'll leave it to the reader to decide when we should play Sinatra and the jazz singers (leading up to that most grown up of seasons, tax season?), jazz instrumentalists (November when the leaves fall like Oscar Peterson's fingers on the keyboard?), reggae (August at the peak of summer vacations?) or classical music (March, when Bach was born?)

I did say that it made me wonder. I didn't say that the idea was wonderful. 

16 March 2011

Stork Delivers Babies / Black Swan Delivers Perpetual Apocalypse

This last year has given us some momentous news: eco-disaster with the Gulf Oil spill, devastating earthquakes in Haiti Chile, and Japan, threat of nuclear meltdown, riots in the Middle East, and sluggish recovery from a financial crisis.  Economic, ecological, urban, energy, and political systems have all been pushed beyond their presumed limits.

It might be that global news and the Internet have simply brought events that decades ago would have been marginalized in the back pages of our newspapers to the forefront of our attention, resulting in a sense of perpetual apocalypse. Or it could be that the modern world has been overshadowed by a flock of Black Swans.

Nassim Taleb's bestselling book, The Black Swan, tells the story of how experience only predicts the future as long as systems are stable. Of course, the defining events shift the system boundaries rather than stay within them. (Taleb tells the story of the turkey convinced that he's loved and cared for and that his owners want the best for him until the day before Thanksgiving when ALL of his experience is suddenly made meaningless and his world view is shattered. The events of 9-11 and the Great Recession, of course, are events that change what is predictable.)

Our modern world may just be so dependent on interdependent, ultimately fragile systems that a parade of news like we've seen in the past year is inevitable. Even if the probability of any one system collapsing or causing destruction is only .1%, we live in a world so populated by these systems that the probability of ONE system reaching a tipping must be close to 100%. Somewhere, a political system will have reached a tipping point and a people will be thrown into violent clashes and social turmoil. An energy system will either become expensive, unstable, or blow up. And the list goes on.

This is a time of perpetual apocalypse for a simple reason: we depend upon systems that we still understand only dimly and can predict and manage with even less confidence.

Isn't it time to invest massive amounts of research money into the development of better models for understanding and managing these systems? The world will not become less complex, but only more so. If we have to live with Black Swans, perhaps we can at least get them to fly in formation.

14 March 2011

There's Always Another Man

"I think that there is another man."
He laughed. "There's always another man."
"Not always."
"Always," he asserted.
"That's a ridiculous claim. There is not always another man."
"You think that you are not competing with some other man from the first conversation? The other man is the man she's somehow constructed in her mind. At any moment, he can alienate her affections from you. He's perfect. You're not. You, however, have one advantage over him: she can introduce you to her friends. As long as you affirm her desirability and don't embarrass her in front of her friends, he's the 'other' guy rather than 'the' guy."
"So, there's always another man."
"That's what I said."

13 March 2011

Fashion: the Consumer as Status Symbol

Another excerpt from the book, The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization from 1300 to 2050. This is from the chapter on the information economy.

“Man is a social being. We can never explain demand by looking only at the physical properties of goods. Man needs goods for communicating with others and for making sense of what is going on around him. The two needs are but one, for communication can only be formed in a system of meanings. His overriding objective as a consumer, put at its most general, is a concern for information about the changing cultural scene.”
Mary Douglas[1]

Fashion – Could Any Social Invention More Obviously Be a Social Invention?
The purpose of fashion is to stimulate demand. It’s a pretty brilliant ploy, really, to compel people who have a perfectly good product to replace it.

The new production methods worked very well for making clothes. In the decades after Crowell’s success with continuous production, the textile and garment industry grew about two or three times as rapidly as any industry. By 1915, only steel and oil were larger industries than the clothing trade[2].

“’The way out of overproduction.’ Wrote one fashion expert, ‘must lie in finding out what the woman at the counter is going to want; make it; then promptly drop it and go on to something else to which fickle fashion is turning her attention.’” Constant change was essential to prosperity of manufacturers and retailers.[3]

The information economy was rich in symbols used for communication and computing. The genius of fashion is that it made the consumer’s goods a symbol, one they would pay dearly to enhance and maintain. In an age that was - at least politically - increasingly democratic, fashion was an important symbol of status, signaling rank. Fashion became fashionable just as aristocracies faded. Fashion made the consumer a symbol. 

[1] James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) 101.
[2] William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 93.
[3] William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 94.

12 March 2011

The Fourth Economy as a Table

This is the framework I've used to define the last 700 years and predict the next 50. 

11 March 2011

Not To Brag But I Just Solved the High Cost of Education & Health Care

Teachers make so much more than average workers, the talking heads shout. This isn't fair.

Fox recently reported that teachers make an average of $51k while the average American worker makes only $38k. There is an easy cure for this disparity: just stop requiring college degrees for teachers.

Men with university degrees make $55k; those without make only $32k. Women with degrees make $45k; women without make only $25k. People with university degrees cost employers about $20k more.

Given that teachers are required to have college degrees, no one should be surprised that teachers make more than the average worker. (No one, that is, but Scott Walker or Fox news analysts.)

But if the Republicans are serious about lowering teacher wages, there is an easy way to do that: stop requiring that teachers complete college or even high school. The savings potential is enormous.

Next up? Massive savings in health care costs by no longer requiring medical school for doctors.

The Optimism of Conspiracy Theorists

Conspiracy theories sound dire but they reflect optimism about events. The premise behind one is if there really is a conspiracy than someone really is in control and if only we could wrestle control away from the conspirators, life would be wonderful. 

Rather than believe that random and sometimes awful things happen, conspiracy theorists, like all true believers, trust in a higher plan and in the possibility of making the world better if only we put the right people in charge. 

10 March 2011

Shaping Schools to Individuals (rather than vice versa)

The book, The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization from 1300 to 2050 is done. I'm now ready for the editing phase. The central notion is that social invention will become as intentional in this century as technological invention became in the last. The goal of this social invention will be to create institutions and organizations that not only create more value but better adapt to the reality of real, rather than idealized, people. Here is an excerpt about the future of education.

Schools can better adapt to real human beings by designing education to accord with some of the best theories about who people are.

Someone quipped that after Howard Gardner defined various kinds of intelligence, the question shifted from whether your child was smart to how your child was smart. Gardner writes and talks to these different ways that people learn, think, and create careers and change communities and lists 8 kinds of intelligence.

His list of intelligences:
§  Spatial- the artist or architect with the ability to conceive of and manipulate objects in three-dimensions,
§  Linguistic – Poets and speakers who use words and language as their tools.
§  Logical-mathematical – the computer programmer or math professor who can reason and manipulate numbers.
§  Bodily-kinesthetic – the dancers and athletes whose control over their body lets them do with precision and strength what others are left to admire.
§  Musical – performers, song writers, and composers.
§  Interpersonal – the leaders, salespeople, and politicians who sense what others are feeling and know how to influence their emotions, reasoning, and actions.
§  Intrapersonal – the psychologists and theologians who are introspective enough to understand the inner life.
§  Naturalistic – the farmers and ecologists who understand and work with the rhythms and dynamics of nature.

Additionally, fairly popular notions of learning suggests that people have at least three kinds of learning styles: some are visual, some auditory, and some kinesthetic learners. If we assume that anyone of the 8 kinds of intelligences could mix with one of the three kinds of learning styles, we have a fairly complex menu of minds. In theory, we’d have 3 X 8, or 24 different kinds of minds. This suggests that in a time of entrepreneurship and social invention, we might create at least 24 kinds of learning experiences, if not even 24 different learning institutions. This customization of learning for different types of students would be just one example of how institutions could be made into tools for the individual.

In this context, thinking of developing an educational system that would work best for a particular kind of learner, one gets a better appreciation of W. Edwards Deming disdain for grades. Imagine grading a visual learner whose potential intelligence was intrapersonal – a person who might be brilliant at reading facial expressions, gestures, and body language for clues about another’s emotions and thoughts. Now imagine that this person was struggling to learn within a school designed for auditory learners where the intelligences that are emphasized are language and math. This child would get a low grade. In this system, they would be made to (unfairly) look stupid or inept or lazy. This would almost be excusable if it were really the case that the only way to make a living was to be good at math or language. In fact, a person who can read and influence others might make more money in sales or management than anyone using literature or algebra.

Deming said that if we know a student got a 92, say, or a 58, we know nothing about the student. The amount of learning a student gains is a function of an equation of X * Y = student score. X is the system and Y is the student. You can’t solve for Y – the student’s ability – without knowing X, the system’s contribution. And of course, for one child the system is a perfect complement to her potential whereas for another it is a miserable clash. For one student, the system works. For another, it does not. For the intrapersonal, visual learner, the interaction of the educational system and the student produces a 58. A grade of D. For the logical – mathematical, auditory learner, the interaction of the system and student produces a 92, or an A. (And it is worth noting that these grades, the A, B, C ‘s that are so ubiquitous, are remnants of a time before the information economy. They were first used by cotton buyers to communicate back to England on the quality of cotton. This was a time when information was very expensive and a single letter grade was so much cheaper to send across the Atlantic than a description of the particulars of the cotton. Even in an information age where every high school kid seems to have the equivalent of a telegraph in his pocket, the now ubiquitous cell phone for texting, we still distill the child’s academic performance into a single letter.) 

The question is not whether the student is smart but how. In a time of rampant social invention, there is no reason that new systems can’t be created that better suit the individual. School should be a means for a student to discover and develop his own potential, not be ranked against other students on criteria that may or may not have anything to do with his future.

In the end, the child’s GPA is a distraction from the real task of creating a life and career. GPA tells us how well the child performed within the school system, a vague approximation of the child’s subsequent performance with the larger social system. (Although, of course, a child convinced that the grade really is a good indication of who she is would be more likely to let this become a prediction of their behavior if it is a poor grade. Sadly, a school’s label of failure is more likely to predict life after school than the label of success. Subject matter is not all that children learn in school; they also learn who they are.) 

01 March 2011

Tweeting Through February 2011

Coworker: What does it mean if the Groundhog comes out of his hole, slips on the ice, and ends up in traction? Perpetual winter?

Weather channel has older white guy and young black woman anchors. Apparently still no place for middle-aged Asian transvestites.

Egyptian transformation less interesting than (lack of or occasional spurts of) corporate transformation: outcomes of latter still undefined

Weather has knocked out information systems like phones and internet in places. I guess they'll be forced to rely on their knowledge and wisdom systems.

Tuesday, groundhog day. Wednesday, Chinese year of rabbit begins. Thursday, start of chipmunk month. Good week for rodent awareness. 

Learned why penguins waddle. If they took large strides they could slip.

If ratio of personal wealth to GDP for Mubarak was the same in US, Obama would be worth $2.1 TRILLION. Mubarak is worth $70B. Egypt's GDP is $500B.

Do you know how people wildly gesture and twist in an effort to influence the bowling ball they've already released? That's parenting.

Super Bowl would be more interesting with same stakes as when Visigoths and Huns fought. Fans of winners get the women and homes of opposing fans.

Green Bay's population is 100,000 and 83,000 people are waiting for season tickets. Est. year you'd get tickets if you applied today, 2074.

Games provide flow but rarely provide meaning. Education provides meaning but rarely provides flow. Time to bring gamers into the classroom?

Riots in muddled east stem, in part, from bad job market. Economies are now limited by ability to generate jobs - not products.

Valentine's Day is to love what birthdays are to happy. At least no one sings "be romantic to her" while we stare self-consciously at a box of chocolates.

If you wanted the players to take losing seriously, wouldn't your team name be something other than cavalier?

Texting STOP It's like having a telegraph in your pocket STOP AT&T knew they'd be vindicated for holding onto the rights to that last T STOP

Shares traded on NYSE one day in 1830: 31. Shares traded 4 Jan 2001: 2 billion. Doubled every decade to 64 million times.

Catholic confession app. Assange and Jerry Springer are already funding R&D into how to hack the feed. http://bit.ly/eJP8ys

Curious. Grocery store item labeled, "restaurant quality." Didn't "tastes home made" used to be the compliment of choice?

Bad: increasingly employees face the same risk to future income as entrepreneurs. Worse: they don't share the same potential for returns.

MS wants license plate for KKK founder. I like the idea. It's an easy way for a community to tag and monitor the demented and hateful.

Walking is easy until you overthink it. At least that's what I keep volunteering to kids in strollers.

His teachers knew Abe had a great future when after electing him class president, his classmates voted to make his birthday a school holiday.

Still a little confused about whole Egyptian thing. When did the Pharaohs resign and why didn't that get any coverage?

Wonder if in the future electronic devices, instead of spending their remaining energy beeping, will just crawl over to a wall socket.

I consider myself tech savvy. For one thing, I regularly appear in 3-D.

House Republicans propose 0 budget for NPR. So awesome. For-profit news is obviously superior. Just compare BBC & PBS w/ Fox & MSNBC.

Obama presented his new budget at a middle school. That makes sense. Junior high kids can't seem to get enough talk about federal budgets.

Conclusion after full day in conference: powerpoint is to communication what hubcaps are to transportation.

The further removed you are from a situation, the more simply you can speak about it because actual situations are rarely simple.

20th century: people program software. 21st century: software programs people.

He said that he had a couple of thoughts. It sounded to me, though, like the thoughts had him.

Since 2005, the ratio of approvals for offshore gas and oil to wind projects is 4,603 to 1, about the same as ratio of inertia to vision.

Wonder how long it'll before the first NBA team has a team tattoo artist.

Caught my computer friending Watson on facebook without me. Great. Now our computers are going to start feeling superior to us.

CA - pop. 37 million / 8th largest economy in the world.Obama visits for 1 day? How about a law requiring the president live here odd years?

NFL announces that it must drastically cut players' pay and benefits in order to remain competitive with China. http://yhoo.it/hSsHNn

Interactive graph. From 1960 to 83, poor shared prosperity w/ rich. Since then? Only the prosperous prospered http://bit.ly/eN1fKn

Ever noticed? Apparent - something obvious. A parent - someone clueless.

Emotionally pithed. Just back from Old Globe. Saw Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Miller was a genius. No wonder Marilyn fell for him.

Rush Limbaugh says that first lady is no swimsuit model then announces a new endorsement deal with speedo.

Writing: the process of banging your brain against the page until words come out.

Saw gas at $3.99 /gal. Oil by barrel is only $2.35. I think I'll just start making my own gas at home.

My brain hurts.

Presumably it is with some measure of guilt that the San Diego weather gods have returned us to our regularly scheduled program. Gorgeous.

It's great that they came up with the Oscars so that movie stars could finally get some praise and attention.

The distinction between best dressed and worst dressed seems so arbitrary. Everything cool eventually looks geeky and vice versa, no?