31 January 2013

John Updike In Praise of the Art of Advertising (preparing for the Super Bowl)

Media is fragmenting into smaller, niche audiences. People have netflix and tivo and don't have to watch ads in order to watch their favorite programs. So advertisers are paying nearly $4 million for one 30 second Super Bowl ad this Sunday. This is an event that needs to be watched in real time and that garners huge swaths of the American public. And once corporate America has our attention, it treats it as something valuable. Worth, well, in excess of $7 million per minute.

With that in mind, here's the late John Updike in praise of TV commercials in his novel Terrorists.

Bush complains about Putin turning into Stalin, but we’re worse than the poor old clunky Kremlin ever was. The Commies just wanted to brainwash you. The new powers that be, the international corporations, want to wash your brains away, period. They want to turn you into machines for consuming – the chicken-coop society. All this entertainment – Madam, it’s crap, the same crap that kept the masses zombified in the Depression, only then you stood in line and paid a quarter for the movie, where today they hand it to you free, with the advertisers paying a million a minute for the chance to mess with your heads. ...
[the programming – sports and comedies and talk shows] It’s slop. And Leno and Letterman, more slop. But the commercials, they are fantastic. They’re like Faberge eggs. When somebody in this country wants to sell you something, they really buckle down. They get intense. You watch the same commercial twenty times, you see how every second has been weighed out in gold. They’re full of what physicists call information.

30 January 2013

Your Blogger's Sweeping Proposals to Lessen Gun Violence

It's tough arguing against the folks who oppose regulations on guns. I'm always a little worried that they might pull out a gun after losing the argument. Nonetheless, I have to assume that Obama and the House Republicans are waiting for us bloggers to weigh in before they decide how to respond to gun violence. So, here are my suggestions for mitigating gun violence. (And yes. I'm serious about them all.)

1. Change our movie ratings. We rather hope that our children grow up to engage in acts of explicit sex but not acts of explicit violence. So why is explicit sex rated X and explicit violence rated R? Reverse that. Or make them both X. Just stop sending the message that violence is more acceptable than sex.

2. New rule for shooter video games: when your character dies, the console shuts down. Each time he dies, the console shuts down for a longer period. (Perhaps the 100th time a character dies, your console permanently dies.) Yes this is sad. So is death. You want realistic simulations? Feel some sorrow when someone dies.

Parenting and Community
3. More males in schools. Teachers are these amazing people who have to provide education on academics and hygiene, life skills, and nutrition as well as provide comfort. And - at the elementary school level - they're disproportionately female. Whether through volunteer efforts, special relationships with more male dominated industries (like accounting, management, construction, and auto repair), or different hiring practices, we should work to bring more males into schools. Boys without fathers are more likely - significantly more likely - to end up in jail for any of a variety of crimes, including shooting someone. More males in their life could help.

4. Give birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome and lose your right to reproduce. One strike and you are out. You've just handicapped a child for life through negligence and abuse. Be glad that you aren't incarcerated for this.

5. Double or triple payments to children in poverty. In the last decade, the percentage of children receiving payments has dropped from 68% to 34%. This is criminal and you have to have either a cold heart or intent on raising a generation who show as little regard for their community as their community has seemed to show for them. You want adult criminals? Ignore children.

6. Change the curriculum. Stop pretending that everyone has the capacity to become a university professor or professional. (See, for instance, the children born with fetal alcohol syndrome mentioned above.) Don't hold schools to silly academic standards. Instead, hold them responsible for preparing their graduates for job offers and start-ups.

7.Change the curriculum. Ask members of the community what is most important to a happy and productive life. Few will mention times tables or split infinitives. Many will mention instead the importance of sustaining relationships, finding meaning, managing cash flow, and defining and pursuing goals. The community that simply depends on parents and the media to do that is inviting a lot of the frustration and failure that occasionally finds its expression in tragic suicides and homicides.

8. Require background checks for all gun purchases, whether or not they're sold at a gun show.

9. Subject all gun purchases to a 30 day waiting period. This alone could lower the rate of suicides enough to save hundreds of lives each year.

10. Ban the sale of guns designed to kill armored personnel or unarmored crowds.

11. Require education for the purchase of a gun, a certification process akin to what we require of new drivers.

12. Require a payment of one million dollars to the family of each gun victim. This would come from liquidating the assets of the shooter (not a group notorious for its wealth) and then a fine on the gun manufacturer. Let the gun manufacturers pass along these costs in their prices (and / or do what they could to lower the probability of such a fine through design, distribution, and marketing practices).

28 January 2013

Who Thought That Bond Markets Might Address Climate Change Before Governments and Corporations?

Amita Sharma at KPBS did some fascinating reporting on how rising sea levels will impact a planned expansion of San Diego's convention center. She rather deftly turned climate change into an investment issue.

Maps generated by researcher Daniel Cayan at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Richard Gersberg at SDSU suggest that by 2050, sea levels will rise between 18 inches to 4 feet along San Diego Bay, causing flooding in areas that include the convention center. Because of this, investment markets may curiously enough offer a way to begin addressing climate change, something that governments and corporations have been slow to do. This, from Sharma's report:

Commission planner Diana Lilly says she's aware of the maps and doesn't think they should be dismissed.
"We certainly are concerned about the issue of sea level rise and how it affects the convention center expansion," she said.
The market may also care. The $520 million project would be financed by bond investors. And they like to know when there are risks.
"In a securities offering you must disclose all material facts that could conceivably affect an investor in a transaction," said Gary Aguirre, a securities attorney in San Diego."Let me ask you would it affect an investor? Would it be valuable information to know the project for which the funds are being raised could be underwater before the bond was paid off? To ask the question is to answer it. Yes, that should be disclosed."

Per Aguirre's point, if you buy a bond that won't be paid back for 30 years, you'd like to know that the project you're funding will last at least 30 years. To invest in a project that might be forced to close after, say, 10 to 20 years is to lose money. As investors shy away from such projects, this could force communities to coordinate to arrive at solutions that address reality rather than deny it.

As odd at it may seem to some that the bond market - an engine of capitalism - may help to address climate change, it's worth remembering that bond markets helped to bring us democracy. Here's a section from my book, The Fourth Economy, that tells the story of how bond markets changed European governments in the early 19th century.

The King of Prussia Bows to Nathan Rothschild

Investors had a bad track record with absolute monarchs. Monarchs were too likely to spend money on unproductive causes (like huge palaces, for instance) and to default rather than submit themselves to moneylenders. Investors soon realized that parliamentary governments were more reliable than monarchs in terms of repayment. They therefore charged absolute monarchies higher interest rates. Often during the eighteenth century, Britain was able to borrow money at half the rate that investors demanded of the more frequently defaulting French.
In 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and a king once again took the French throne.[1] Nonetheless, France had created an arms race among Europeans and unease among royalty, and this put a great strain on some of the more traditional economies, like those of Prussia and Russia. These countries were forced to seek financing for both modernization and armaments.
After the war, the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, turned to the Rothschilds for a loan. Prussia was a great power. It was the country that would eventually bring about the union of Germany, and Prussia was home to the city of Berlin, which would become the German capital. The King of Prussia was no petty aristocrat when he came to Nathan Rothschild in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, asking for financing to modernize his country and army. Prussia was one of the great powers in Europe.
Yet Nathan Rothschild’s response to Wilhelm’s request for a loan was symbolic of the great shift in power that had occurred.  In a letter dated 1818, Nathan Rothschild explained to the Prussian King:
…the late investments by British subjects in the French funds have proceeded upon the general belief that in consequence of the representative system now established in that Country, the sanction of the Chamber to the national debt incurred by the Government affords a guarantee to the Public Creditor which could not be found in a Contract with any Sovereign uncontrolled in the exercise of the executive powers.[2]
Rothschild basically said that investors preferred parliaments to absolute monarchies, and he was defining terms for the loan in this initial negotiation, as any lender might do. What was highly unusual and completely remarkable was that a mere banker could dictate the terms of the loan to a king in this stage of negotiations. And these were not just any terms. He was requesting that Friedrich Wilhelm III submit to a parliamentary form of government in order to qualify for the loan he had requested. Through negotiations this clause was modified, but not by much. The finalized contract included a clause that basically demanded constitutional reform as a precondition for any further borrowing. This, perhaps more than any other act, signaled a watershed moment: a banker was now dictating terms to a king. Before the King of Prussia could borrow his next round of financing, he would have to share power with parliament. Just consider what this says about the rise of the banker in relation to the state. Nathan Rothschild, member of a group who in one generation could be forced off of the sidewalk by children, was now ordering one of Europe’s most powerful kings to give up power to Parliament. Step off the sidewalk indeed. The French armies wanted to topple kings and institute republics in their place. What the great General Napoleon was unable to do in Prussia with military force, Nathan Rothschild the banker was able to do with capital.

[1] Nathan Rothschild, who knew before other investors that Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo, used information about Napoleon’s defeat to play the markets and to quickly make a small fortune, enlarging his capital and influence.
[2] Ferguson, The House of Rothschild, 270.

Investment markets force us to look forward. Right now, that future looks warm and soggy. Apparently, that's easier to ignore when we're talking about the abstract affect on future generations than when we're talking about the concrete affect on investment bonds we're selling today.

Amita Sharma's full report on how climate change is impacting plans for the convention center is here.

25 January 2013

Alternatives to Marriage

Weeks ago, I flew beside an attractive young mother who told me that she got married even though she didn't want to. "I don't intend to leave my husband. We have two children. But I didn't like the idea of being married."

"Why did you do it then," I asked her.

"My mother is very traditional She's Chinese and once our first boy was born it drove her nuts that we weren't married. I did it, really, for her."

"What difference does it make," I asked. "Why would you have rather not married?"

"I heard guys at work talk about their wives and they would talk about them as if they were some duty, some burden. I did not want to be that. I wanted more than that."

I was left thinking again that this generation has such a fascinating row ahead of it as it creates and navigates new kinds of arrangements, new social inventions, in domains as varied as boardrooms and bedrooms. It confirmed for me that we're living in a time of great change in that category.

And then we watched the century-old play by George Bernard Shaw and I heard this dialogue between Pickering -a gentlemen higher up in society - and Doolittle, who is part of the working poor. I realized that this is not a new thing, this matter of various kinds of departures from the "traditional" marriage. In fact, ad hoc relationships are at least as traditional in the sense that they've been around for as long.

PICKERING. Why don't you marry that missus of yours? I rather draw the line at encouraging that sort of immorality.
  DOOLITTLE. Tell her so, Governor: tell her so. I'm willing. It's me that suffers by it. I've no hold on her. I got to be agreeable to her. I got to give her presents. I got to buy her clothes something sinful. I'm a slave to that woman, Governor, just because I'm not her lawful husband. And she knows it too. Catch her marrying me! Take my advice, Governor: marry Eliza while she's young and don't know no better. If you don't you'll be sorry for it after. If you do, she'll be sorry for it after; but better you than her, because you're a man, and shes only a woman and don't know how to be happy anyhow.
- George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

Perhaps this young mother I thought of as so modern had gained her insight from reading Shaw's dialogue from a century earlier. Force the man to "be agreeable to her" by being a slave to her, knowing that she is free to leave if she's displeased. It turns out that I'm not only not up with the times - I'm at least a century behind them.

Here's a song you can hum as you contemplate this.

24 January 2013

The Missing Dynamic in DC

What's missing in Washington is not a dialogue between Republicans and Democrats. What's missing is a dialogue between wild optimism and brutal facts, between faith and reality.

"Leadership does not just begin with vision. It begins with getting people to confront the brutal facts and to act on the implications."
- Jim Collins
Robert Samuelson writes about President Make-Believe in the Washington Post today, in response to Obama's rhetoric in his inaugural speech Monday.
Of course, there are conflicts between the young and old. In 2000, there were 45 million Social Security recipients; by 2025, the Social Security Administration projects the number at 79 million. Already, paying for retirees is the largest source of federal spending....
On climate change, the difficulty is greater. Environmentalists argue that emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) need to be cut 50 percent to 80 percent by mid-century to avoid a ruinous warming. The problem is that there’s simply no plausible way to get from here to there without, in effect, shutting down the world economy.
Consider a recent study by the International Energy Agency in Paris. Under current policies, it forecasts that world energy demand will rise 47 percent between 2010 and 2035 and the increase in emissions of carbon dioxide — the largest greenhouse gas — will be almost the same. 
Whether the topic is as long-term as climate change, as seemingly intractable as Middle East politics, or as inevitable as eventual shortfalls in social security and medicare funding, reality is going to win over any distortions of it.

I'm not advocating gloom or doom. Far from it. Jim Collins in his Good to Great book also adds a context for his quote about confronting brutal facts, and it lays out the tension between facts and optimism, a tension from which it seems anything grand emerges.
"A key psychology for leading from good to great is the Stockdale Paradox: Retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

We're not going to create anything good by clinging to just blind faith or just brutal facts. In the same way that neither man nor woman can conceive a baby by themselves, so it is with facts and faith: any new and great creation will come from the dynamic between the two. Neither works particularly well in isolation. 

21 January 2013

Those Wildly Symbolic Americans

Today, Martin Luther King's Birthday (well, holiday commemorating same), Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term. And January marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th amendment that freed slaves. That is delightfully symbolic.

So given Americans' seeming penchant for symbolism, it's hard to imagine that they'll be able to resist voting in a woman in the 2020 election, the year that will mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote.

It takes us awhile, but we might just get past these silly prejudices yet. And isn't that cool?

20 January 2013

Freedom is Not the Same as Empowerment (or, It's Not What You Spend, It's What You Invest)

The Legatum 2012 Index has just been released. It ranks countries by a rich set of variables to measure prosperity. It doesn't just measure things like GDP and unemployment but also health, education, safety, personal freedoms, and entrepreneurship and opportunity.

Norway, Denmark, and Sweden top the list. These three countries spend and tax a great deal (tax rates an average of 46% of GDP and government spending an average of 48%  - nearly half - of GDP). In the following chart, you can see the top 21 countries, ranked from left to right. The lines measure taxes and government spending as a percentage of GDP. Further, there is a simple trend line that shows that as national ranking drops, so do spending and taxes.

Spending seems neither good or evil but instead necessary for the creation of a prosperous nation.

The Legatum Institute’s measure of prosperity is both complex and reasonable. If a country’s people have high incomes but few freedoms, it gets a lower score. The score also drops if its economic prosperity comes at the expense of health. The index makes an attempt to measure future prospects. Education is one obvious way to measure that but one of the more interesting variables is that of entrepreneurship and opportunity; if your people currently have high incomes but there is little entrepreneurial opportunity or activity, your ranking drops. (It doesn't seem as though they included environment, though. It seems that a measure of prosperity should take account for the loss of natural resources that comes from drawing down oil or fresh water reserves or polluting air and water.) 

This seems to affirm that prosperity is more complicated than just declaring freedoms. "You are free to learn what you would like" is not nearly as empowering as "You will have access to free education, education that we will hold to a particular standard. And not only are your parents required to send you to school but we have laws that prohibit child labor." And this may be the simplest explanation for why cutting government spending and taxes does not simply lead to more prosperity and may actually diminish it. Freedom is not the same as empowerment.

Edward Deci distinguished between three different styles of parenting or managing. I would say that the styles also apply to governing. The first style is controlling, dictating to children, employees or citizens what to do. The second style is abandonment, or freedom, letting children, employees, or citizens do whatever they want. Deci's third and recommended style is what he called autonomy-supportive. In this model, children and employees and citizens alike are the one's - ultimately - who have the power to choose and decide what to do. But rather than just given freedom to do what they want, they are supported by parents, teachers, and governments who enable them to realize their goals with a combination of education and resources. 

Deci's third style of governing suggests that a government that enables its people by helping them to be healthier, better educated, and to have better access to capital, information technology and a fair legal system will be more prosperous. And Legatum’s prosperity index seems to support that very claim. Empowerment is not the same as freedom nor is it free.

High tax rates and government spending can inhibit prosperity but not nearly as much as a failure to invest in quality healthcare, education and governance. Prosperity depends on investment and that is just as true of nations as it is individuals.

16 January 2013

Jedi, Wiccans, and Scientologists

From a fascinating article on the fundraising behind Scientology's recent cathedral building here:

And the ranks of the faithful are dropping. In 2008, there were 25,000 self-identifying American Scientologists, down by over a half from 55,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. (Over the same time period, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 134,000 to 342,000.) The 2011 British census showed a total of 2,418 Scientologists across England and Wales; about 73 times as many Brits identified themselves as "Jedi."

That's kind of interesting.

15 January 2013

Wanna Bet? Because I'm Tired of Arguing

I'm done arguing. As part of a new year's experiment (my variant on new year's resolutions) for the next few months, I'm going to make bets instead of arguing.

Arguments have so many problems. They alienate and anger people. They tire spectators on the sideline. They are a way to assert a worldview but more often a worldview that can't be tested but instead can only be tolerated or enjoyed like a familiar story.

By contrast, a bet demands a certain amount of precision and can be proven right or wrong. It demands prediction. And it allows you to quickly silence those who are just playing devil's advocate and merely want to tire you with petty, inconsequential probabilities.

I don't know how this is going to work but here's how I imagine it.

Old world argument ...
"We have the right to bear arms. It's in the constitution."
"But we could put in place some regulations that protect the right to own guns without pretending that anyone anywhere can have any kind of gun."
"Hitler confiscated guns. If you regulate firearms it's not only against the constitution, it makes you just like Hitler. (Plus did you know that he was a vegetarian?)"
"You don't think that gun regulations could help?"
"You can't outlaw guns! That ..."

And so it goes. Tiresome. Imprecise. A mix of rational and irrational claims all tumbled together like turds and chocolate. Here's how I imagine it could go instead.

New world bet ...
"We have to reduce the deficit. And we have to do it with spending cuts because taxes are already too high."
"You think that we can cut military spending and entitlements enough to close a trillion dollar gap?"
"No. We shouldn't cut defense. We should only cut welfare and entitlements."
"Okay. I'll bet you $20 that you can't balance next year's budget without touching the military or raising taxes, listing specific cuts that you honestly believe we should make. And if you win that bet, I bet you $2,000 that you can't get 6 out of 10 random people on the street to agree to your cuts. And if you win that bet, I bet you $100,000 that you can't get your Congressmen or Senator to publicly agree with your cuts. They'll just be too afraid to alienate constituents and would never vote for those cuts."
"You have a conviction that we should reduce the deficit and that we don't need to raise taxes to get there. I could say things about how taxes as a percentage of GDP are the lowest they've been in 50 years. I could say that we've never had more retired people as a percentage of the population, thereby driving higher costs for retirement. I could point out that never has it been so expensive to prepare for a career,making education more expensive. I could argue that while people hate how much government costs they mostly agree with the expenses that drive its costs. I could make all sorts of points about how spending can only compress so far but you won't listen to any of it, dismissing me as misinformed and delusional. So instead, here's a chance to either admit that you were wishing government was cheap in the same way that 16 year olds wish that a BMW was affordable or demonstrate the real conviction about your beliefs and cash in on the fact that you are right and I'm wrong. So, which bet do you want?"
"Those are ridiculous bets."
"Well then tell me which of your convictions you'd place money on."
"That's stupid."
"So you don't believe in your own beliefs. Fine by me. What do you think about those Padres?"
"They've got a great, young team."
"So, do you want to bet against me when I say they'll lose the division?"

Now I may be caught up in my own imagination in ways that are unhealthy, but I somehow see this new "bet, don't argue" policy as making life more interesting. Don't believe in climate change? Think that the scientists are wrong and the oil companies, politicians, and talk show hosts are more objective about this topic, have more understanding than the scientists? Fine. Let's bet about the weather over the next decade. I'll bet you $10,000 that big storms and average temps don't go down and $1,000 that they go up. You think that Iran is stupid enough to bomb Israel? I'll bet you that it won't happen over the next decade. And so on.

Also, people with money on the line are more likely to be precise in their arguments than people who have nothing at stake. A bet has to have a measurable outcome: someone wins an election, a poll comes in a certain way, the stock market moves in a particular direction, job creation does or doesn't materialize - and at a certain rate (or not). Among other things, if you can't define the conditions that would enable you to win or lose your bet, you don't really have a coherent argument anyway.

I think this is going to be interesting. I suspect, though, that fewer people are willing to bet than argue. I'm willing to bet on it.

13 January 2013

China's Eugenics Program: A Billion Person Experiment to Create Humanity 2.0

China is creating its next generation through eugenics. Geoffrey Miller reports at the Edge that,

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually—but will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence. Given the Mendelian genetic lottery, the kids produced by any one couple typically differ by 5 to 15 IQ points. So this method of "preimplantation embryo selection" might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.

Is this a matter of parents and society doing what is best for their children? Could this result in some Utopian future in which no one has genetic defects and everyone represents a vast improvement on their parents, the generational equivalent of new product releases - "brighter! harder working! better looking!"? Is it a natural evolution of evolution from something random to something intentional? 

Or are we heading towards a Dystopia in which future people are the product of past ideals? (Imagine trying something like the miracle of Silicon Valley with males genetically engineered by Romans to be the perfect gladiator.) Perhaps random is the only really safe way to prepare for an unknown future.

It is hard to believe that as methods for "choosing" your best off-spring become better known that people throughout the West won't adopt these methods as well. I see no reason why that ought not to make you both very excited and very afraid for the future.

11 January 2013

Dwindling Labor Share of Company Output is not a Profit Problem - It's a Power Problem

Liberals are concerned about this chart:

Their problem is, labor is not getting as much of the money generated by US companies. The fear is, capital is getting too much, leading to growing income inequality.

I don't buy it. And I'm what most Americans would consider a liberal (or as they would describe me in the UK,  a moderate). I think that it is wonderful that profits are rising relative to wages. To the extent that this is driving inequality in incomes (and it is) that is not a problem with increased profit. It is a problem with profit-sharing.

In an ideal world, we could hire someone to work for a few months, after which the software or movie or product they created would continue to sell for years, turning a huge profit. In this ideal world of intense (but intensely short duration) work towards the creation of something that would create an on-going profit steam (for a prolonged period), profit would be huge relative to wages.

Profit is a great signal that you are employing resources well. No profit means that you made just enough to pay labor and resources and capital (interest, for instance, on loans). When profit is zero, you are not really adding value to the inputs that were already there. Now by contrast, if you make a lot of profit, you are adding value. You brought together inputs that cost, say, only a million and turned it into profit worth, say, one hundred million. You transformed something that was worth just a little into something worth a lot. You didn't just shift money. You created it.

The problem is not that companies are generating more profit. That's wonderful. The problem is that we still don't have good mechanisms for sharing company profit to the Indians and not just the Chiefs (as in Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer ...).

In terms of business evolution, the right thing is happening: companies are becoming continually more effective at creating profits. In terms of the politics of business - how work and wealth is shared - the corporation still more closely resembles a fiefdom than a democracy. Once businesses better determine how to share incentives and power over decision-making and wealth-creation, they'll not only become even more profitable but the distribution of that profit will less dramatically contribute to income inequality. The problem is not profit. The problem is that we've yet to get to the next stage of business evolution to better share that profit.

09 January 2013

Barry Bonds in the Wild, Wild West - Pioneer or Outlaw?

Barry Bonds had one of the most amazing careers in the history of baseball. His career batting average was nearly .300. He hit 73 home runs in one season and 762 for his career. Based just on stats, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to label him baseball's greatest player during his life. Yet he did not win enough votes to reach the Hall of Fame this year.

Jim Thorpe was considered the greatest athlete in the world during his life. He lost his Olympic medals from 1912 when officials learned that he had lost his amateur status by playing semi-pro ball for a couple of years.

Today, of course, the US unashamedly fields an Olympic Dream Team whose average salary is in the 8-figures. Times have changed and the assumption seems to be that the world's best athletes will be professionals. Pay is expected for great athletes.

In the future, people are likely to regularly use performance enhancing drugs in the course of wanting to feel younger and more alive. In whatever form, they'll probably be taking supplements and drugs that make them stronger and smarter. It is hard to imagine that in such a future professional athletes will do less - as opposed to more - than the average person to enhance their performance. Whichever performance-enhancing drugs the common people are taking, the professionals will likely take - at a minimum - a larger dose. And perhaps in that world, Barry Bonds will be seen as a pioneer rather than an outlaw. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, in this world, he's standing out in the cold with people like Roger Clemens and Pete Rose. And while I understand that stats can't be the only criteria for admission to the Hall of Fame, you have to wonder whether a team of the best players - in their prime - excluded from the Hall of Fame might not beat a team of the best players who are in the Hall of Fame.

08 January 2013

The Real Beatles Conspiracy

I don't know why no one has seen through the Beatles and Rolling Stones conspiracy. It was an obvious, last-ditch effort by the British to maintain control over the colonies (albeit an admittedly different sort of mind control, the kind of thing designed to make us hum distractedly rather than go all 1776 on them). It was an obvious attempt to revive the empire after  World War II. They weren't even subtle about it, boldly calling it  the British Invasion.

07 January 2013

Insert (Unnecessary) Drama Here

I suspect that people inject drama into otherwise banal situations because they've abandoned anything that even remotely resembles a hero's journey. This serves two purposes: it helps to distract them and it makes it easier to convince themselves that they actually are in the midst of some great and noble struggle.

06 January 2013

Alan Watts Foretold Our Future - Decades Ago

I'm reading a book* of Alan Watts' from 1966 and come across this disturbingly prescient passage.

"... increasing efficiency of of communication ... can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body ... But this will be a new kind of individual - an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. There may be specialized types, just as there are specialized cells and organs in our bodies. For the tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bio-electronic body."

Who is he calling a toadstool?

*The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

02 January 2013

Time for Democrats to Use Political Judo and Give the GOP What it Wants

Isn't it a principle of martial arts to use your opponent's energy against him? He lunges for you and rather than pushing back you accelerate his forward movement with a pull and a flip, doubling the force against him and avoiding it completely? Hold that thought.

When LBJ signed the civil rights legislation that ended segregation, he commented that the Democratic Party had lost the south for a generation. Good old boys were a big component of the Democratic Party, or had been until it made racists feel unwelcome. Sometimes a party's policy victory can lead to political defeat: before the Civil Rights legislation, Democrats had won the White House in 8 out of 10 elections; after, they won only 1 of 6 presidential elections.

The Republicans continue to insist that we need to reduce the deficit by spending cuts alone. I think that the Democrats should feign defeat and give them exactly that. They should loudly protest and register their disapproval and predict disaster but should still pretend to (or perhaps really) be unable to overcome negotiations stalemate over a debt ceiling discussion, for instance. Let the Republicans have their huge budget cuts and watch voters avoid them for a generation.

If Republicans got what they claim they want, two things would happen. One, short-term the economy would contract. Horribly, because this unemployment would have little or no cushion. Two, it would mean a massive slashing of entitlement spending. At this point it is worth noting that recipients of entitlement spending call it by different names, using labels like "my social security check," or "my medicare insurance coverage." Now at this point Republicans would protest that their plans to slash social security are only for future generations, but of course that would do nothing for current deficits. One way or another, they'd have to cut something now. And it would not be small cuts.

Even short of economic catastrophe and hardship for millions, it would be worth taking the Republicans seriously and coaxing out of them a real balanced budget that does not involve tax hikes. Cutting a trillion from a 3 trillion budget would alienate huge swaths of the electorate. Like civil rights legislation that lost the south, Republican's balanced budget sans tax hikes could alienate at least enough voters to ensure a Democratic White House as far as the eye can see.

Maybe it is time that Democrats stopped resisting Republicans and instead let them use their own energy to lose voters. A little political judo seems in order.

01 January 2013

Highlighting Overlooked Career Options: Department Store Santa

Millions of graduates will enter the job market in 2013. It will be the best market in years but still young adults are forced to choose with little information. In the hopes of making this important decision easier, I've decided to highlight career options, with particular emphasis on jobs that most young people are unlikely to consider. With that in mind, I've interviewed a department store Santa.

Me: What made you choose to become a department store Santa?

Department Store Santa: I had considered a number of options. My aptitude tests suggested that I would likely be good as a textile manufacturer, hedge fund manager, or department store Santa.

Me: And you choose Santa because?

DSS: I'm off 11 months of the year.

Me: Of course. And are you happy with your choice?

DSS: It's tougher than I thought but it also has some surprising benefits.

Me: Tough?

DSS: Well you don't have to conduct some fancy study to determine whether there is an obesity epidemic among our kids. You just have to ask a Santa. These kids are huge. By 10:30, I can't feel my legs.

Me: That is tough. Surprising benefits?

DSS: Kids are gullible. Plus they are sort of savvy about the economy. This year I got a huge boost to my income by telling them that because of budget cuts Santa could no longer afford to give gifts for free. They'd have to give me $5 for every request. That really added up.

Me: They believed you?

DSS: Believed me? Of course these kids believe in me. Although I had to tell some of the more skeptical kids that my workers weren't actually elves but were instead suffering from malnutrition because I could afford to pay them so little.

Me: Any tips about how to prepare for the job?

DSS: Eat what you want, whenever you want. Try not to exercise much. Don't bother to shave. And learn how to avoid specific promises: be vague so the kids' expectations are left fairly inarticulate. Basically, all the things that drove your old girlfriend crazy make you perfect for this job. More guys are qualified for this job than actually consider it. Oh, and do spend a little time on oral hygiene. Kids are terribly distracted by odors.

Me: Thank you for your time.

DSS: Of course. Now you'll get off my lap?