29 October 2013

My Action Movie Plot: The Ultimate Conspiracy

He had been through a lot. It showed on his face. By this point he'd been stabbed, shot, tortured, and deprived of sleep for 3 of the last 5 days. Worse, he'd watched his friend Jared die from a gunshot that had come without warning; he never had seen the shooter, just Jared falling with a look of disbelief on his face.

The last week had been utter madness and he didn't even know why. One day he was like any other person and suddenly it was as though he'd been plunged into one of those ludicrous action films where the hero was made to suffer so much that you could only imagine that he would sit staring at a wall for weeks rather than pick himself up for a car chase - on foot.

He was not paranoid, but he began to suspect a conspiracy when he had been attacked in the hotel room to which he'd fled after Jared had been shot right in front of his house. How could they have found in him in the anonymity of Vegas, in a hotel room he'd paid for with cash? It was as if the people behind this had intimate knowledge of his every move, even his moods and movements. He'd recently heard of a mysterious agency that gave orders to the NSA, but while it made sense that they might take an interest in world leaders, it made no sense that they'd take an interest in him. He was a nobody. None of this made sense. He was now hiding in public places, sitting at this moment in an iHop which he'd mistaken for an Apple store.

He was desperate to understand who would put him through this kind of hell, who might show this sort of gratuitous cruelty. As he racked his brain for some past mistake, someone he had angered, wondering who could hate him this much, a realization came to him: he had no past to remember. And suddenly it dawned on him who was responsible for his misery: it had to be one of those action film scriptwriters who didn't even have the decency to give him - the main character in this unfolding tragedy - a past.

He knew now who he had to find and kill if he ever expected these repeated attacks to end: the rest of this story was going to be about his hunting down and killing the scriptwriter. The irony of it made him smile, made the pain from his bullet wound temporarily disappear. Never had he felt so certain, so filled with purpose. His life made sense for once. He smiled, took a deep breath, and then a sip of his coffee. He imagined the surprise on the scriptwriter's face when he would look up from his laptop on which he plotted evil to see him, the character on whom he'd inflicted so much pain, the character whose only thought was revenge.

Just then, though, the blogger's henchmen burst into the iHop and, before he could even stand they shot him. The last thought to run through his mind was, "A blogger. I should have known. Couldn't even be bothered to give me a name."

28 October 2013

Obama Drones on and on (or, one difference between arithmetic and systems dynamics)

Projections based on arithmetic are different from those made based on systems' dynamics. If you use DDT to kill 98% of the mosquitoes, it is easy to think that you've reduced their population to just 2% of their original numbers. Well you have. Temporarily. But now you only have DDT-resistant mosquitoes left. And they'll multiply to fill the same niche they filled before but this time your DDT won't work to fend them off. Which brings us to Obama and his drones.

Drones seem like a wonderful idea. I like the fact that they give a president an option other than ignoring bad guys or starting a war. Bad guys do hurt other people and it seems puzzling that someone would want bullies to run loose, free to intimidate, kill, and terrorize innocents who simply want to raise their children to become, themselves, the parents of happy children. And sending troops in to invade every time you get intelligence on a bad guy is - of course - ludicrous. 

But drones aren't as precise as advertised. They'll leave at least 2% of the terrorists and worse, at least 2% of their victims are likely to be innocent people. So, the remaining terrorists now have the very real outrage of people who are incredulous that the US is executing judgment on their citizens from abroad, without trial or jury, and in the process killing people like a grandma surrounding by her grandchildren.

The question is, are we hampering the current efforts of the Taliban while greatly helping their future recruitment efforts? Just looking at the arithmetic, drones make a great deal of sense. Looking at the system dynamics, they don't.

26 October 2013

The Fourth Economy and the Transformation of Business - Individual Autonomy and Freedom of Work

Centuries ago, the West realized that the medieval church and pope might not be the true representatives of God. This century, the West will come to a similar realization about corporations and CEOs as true representatives of markets.

Markets are a beautiful thing for many reasons. In a market economy, a person can't just follow his bliss. In order to eat, he has to show at least a passing interest in your bliss as well. Markets are far from perfect but they do direct attention outwards, away from one's belly button and out into the greater good.

Corporations are only approximations of markets. That is inevitable. It takes a lot to coordinate the activities of a corporation and there is simply no way that all its effort will be translated into market value. Not every product will become a blockbuster. There are times when a company will simply misfire and that will never change.

The more interesting criticism is that corporations themselves tend to be controlled by the visible hand of management rather than the invisible hand of markets. An employee's pay is determined by HR definitions and management review for instance.

It is possible to rely on market forces and allow employees to bid for tasks that would create more or less value. Tasks that feed into a new product launch could represent a percentage of future profits, for instance, giving employees incentive to bid higher (e.g., accept lower wages now in return for percentage returns later) on more promising projects. Such market mechanisms would not only allow employees to make more money but would give corporations important feedback on the perceived viability of their projects in the eyes of their own experts. This is just one of the ways that corporations could rely more on markets and less on control, but it would mean granting employees more autonomy, more choice about where to focus their attention.

We still have Catholics centuries after the Protestant Revolution. We will likely have some measure of the command and control corporation for generations. But the Catholic Church today is radically different from the Catholic Church of the 15th century. Even traditional corporations will be changed by the business revolution that's underway.

What the West did in religion, politics, and finance since the Dark Ages is grant increasing autonomy to the individual. Individuals are free to buy what they want with a loan, from a large boat they will use only once or twice to a small home they will live in every day. The American Dream offers access to credit and investment markets even for ordinary people; last century, finance was transformed. In the West, the individual is free to worship L. Ron Hubbard on Mondays or Peyton Manning on Sundays. No religious elite can dictate proper worship to the common man. And, of course, even the political elite have to win the approval of the common person in order to govern. The most defining thing about the West is autonomy for the ordinary person. In business, though, employees still get told what to do.

In keeping with this increase in autonomy, business and the corporation will be changed in our lifetimes as much as the church and religion, the nation-state and politics, and the bank and finance were changed in previous centuries. Just as the individual is now directed by personal revelation rather than religious elites, the individual will increasingly be directed by personal market perceptions and choice rather than corporate executives. It could be fascinating.

Increased autonomy isn't just the proper measure of economic progress. It matters because of another parallel between God and markets. Just as the medieval God benignly neglected a great deal of suffering, so do modern markets. Individual action - not the invisible hands of God or markets - is the tool through which change is so often made. We can blame it on impersonal forces as varied as God, markets, or genetics but it is, ultimately, how we act that determines what world we live in.

23 October 2013

Outrage! Millions Unfairly Pay Tax of 100%

I don't know what you think to be a fair tax rate. It could be, though, like me you think that an income tax of 100% is too high. Outrageous, even. Something that should never be allowed.

Since January 2010, the unemployment rate has averaged 8.6%. Last month it was down to 7.2% but that still represents 4.1 million long-term unemployed and another 852,000 discouraged workers who've essentially given up on finding a job.

At least half of these millions are effectively paying a tax of 100%. They have no jobs. They have no income. This is not because we've had a doubling of lazy or irrelevancy since unemployment was only 4%. This is because of economic conditions they didn't create. And here's the crazy thing: the right stimulus package could have lowered the numbers of long-term unemployed and discouraged by half.

Meanwhile, we continue to cut government jobs and spending, focusing on deficits before we focus on unemployment. Through the end of 2012, about a million public sector jobs had been eliminated since the start of the Great Recession. This is the biggest loss of public sector jobs since the end of World War 2. Estimates are that the ripple effect of this is another 700,000 private sector jobs. Simply leaving the number of public sector jobs stable through the recession could have cut long-term unemployment in half.

When we have a recession, there is a bill to pay. We're lying to ourselves if we try to say that by keeping the bill out of the deficit total no one has to pay it. By dragging out the recession longer than it has to be, we've made millions of people pay the most ridiculously high tax one could: a full 100%.

19 October 2013

Daniel Goleman's Emotional and Social Intelligence Framework

Put this on the list of things that should be on our lifetime learning list.

The Emotional Competence Framework

(taken from pp 26-27 of Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence)


Personal Competence

These competencies determine how we manage ourselves

Self Awareness

Knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions

Emotional awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and their effects.
Accurate self-assessment: Knowing one’s strengths and limits
Self-confidence: A strong sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities


Managing one’s internal states, impulses, and resources

Self-control: Keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check
Trustworthiness: Maintaining standards of honesty and integrity
Conscientiousness: Taking responsibility for personal performance
Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change
Innovation: Being comfortable with novel ideas, approaches, and new information


Emotional tendencies that guide or facilitate reaching goals

Achievement drive: Striving to improve or meet a standard of excellence
Commitment: Aligning with the goals of the group or organization
Initiative: Readiness to act on opportunities
Optimism: Persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks


Social Competence

These competencies determine how we handle relationships


Awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns

Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns
Developing others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing, and meeting customers’ needs
Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through different kinds of people
Political awareness: Reading a group’s emotional currents and power relationships

Social Skills

Adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others

Influence: Wielding effective tactics for persuasion
Communication: Listening openly and sending convincing messages
Conflict management: Negotiating and resolving disagreements
Leadership: Inspiring and guiding individuals and groups
Change catalyst: Initiating or managing change
Building bonds: Nurturing instrumental relationships
Collaboration and cooperation: Working with others toward shared goals

Team Capabilities: Creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals

16 October 2013

Debt - Vital Government Service and Tool of the Devil

Debt still strikes a discordant note with Americans. This aversion to debt is a big reason for the Tea Party's popularity but debt is not just an essential part of the modern economy; it is an important government service. Paul, though, clearly warned against it in his letter to the Romans. It's fair to say that Americans are conflicted about debt.

The Venetians invented the bond market between the 12th and 14th centuries. Rather than tax their wealthy, they raised money through a forced loan. The wealthy got a return of 5%. Within a century or two, these claims on interest (what we now call bonds) could be sold, which made them even better investments. 

The Dutch were the next to turn trading profits into financial innovations. The Dutch held off the much larger Spanish Empire for eighty years, largely through very different approaches to debt. On five different occasions Spain defaulted. The Netherlands, by contrast, honored their debt and accumulated a lot of it. It was not just the king who bought bonds; huge swaths of the population purchased these bonds that helped to finance their country and independence. In spite of having a much smaller population than Castile, Holland carried triple the per capita debt; matching Spain's spending helped it to eventually win its war. By the conclusion of the war, “The Netherlands had transformed themselves into an independent and extraordinarily wealthy republic. Spain, however, was in precipitous decline, and many Spaniards agreed that ‘the war in the Netherlands has been the total ruin of this Monarchy.’”[1]

What first the Dutch and then the British learned was that financing debt could enable the operation of a government and provide a safe investment. Bonds are like a gateway drug for capitalism, creating the habits of investment, the expectation of payment, and a baseline against which other investments can be measured. As control over nation-states shifted from monarchs to Parliaments, government debt became safer. Monarchs obliged to pay back a debt would default when they could, eager to get out from under debt obligation. Parliament that voted to pay interest on debt were often among the chief holders of government bonds; among the many reasons that democracies eclipsed monarchies is that they are safer investments, creating environs more conducive to capitalism and able to run their governments for considerably less money.

We will never be rid of government debt for this simple reason: it is a good and (probably) necessary part of the financial system. 

But the Tea Party gets excited about it for numerous reasons. One is residual from a Biblical controversy about a century old. Debt, like homosexuality, not only seemed distasteful but there was scripture that banned it.

In his book Financing the American Dream, Lendol Calder captures the extent to which public opinion resisted the concept of consumer credit. The argument against credit wasn’t just the modern indictment that people who went into debt were “mortgaging the future." [2] Debt, its detractors claimed, threatened salvation. [3]

Debt seemed to be a tool of the devil, leading people to buy what they could not afford and to fail to appreciate the true value of things. Consumer credit, of course, encouraged people to seize now what propriety suggested they should wait for and was evidence of discontent and greed. Those who preached against debt—and many of the most influential preachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did—even had a verse clearly advising against it. In Romans 13:8, Paul writes, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” Self-denial was key to Christianity[4]: borrowing to buy the latest gadget was the antithesis of that.

These preachers were not particularly sympathetic to the goals of the capitalists, eager to sell their goods.  “Credit is the latest ally of the devil. It is the great tempter. It is responsible for half the extravagance of modern life. The two words ‘charge it’ have done more harm than any others in the language. They have led to a vast amount of unnecessary buying.” [5]

Arguments about how defaulting on debt could lead to economic woe, a contraction of the economy, of course rest on the naive notion that Tea Party members care about - or even trust in - prosperity. Consumption - like cocaine or heroin - feels good now but perhaps for that very reason should be mistrusted.

[1] McDonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt, 151.
[2] Lendol Calder, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 221.
[3] Calder, Financing the American Dream, 224.
[4] Calder, Financing the American Dream, 95.
[5] Calder, Financing the American Dream, 215.

14 October 2013

The Courage to Cut Waste and Corruption (or, Taking On Poor Children, the Scourge of Our Nation)

A couple of weeks ago, my wife called to announce that she'd gotten two new students in her second grade class.
"Oh," I replied laconically.
"Last week their father killed their mother," she added.
"Oh," I replied in horror.
Counseling has yet to start and may never be available for the poor aunt who has bravely taken responsibility for them, adding four new children to her two. (Her new students have two siblings.)

Today I was visiting her class when one of her former students showed up. He is now a 12th grader and told me that he wants to become a police officer. He was there to pick up his nephew who is now in Sandi's class. He looked terribly stressed. His nephew, only 7, was crying as they left. His mom and the 2nd grader's grandma had been deported. Today, this 17 year old is responsible for the 7 year old.

Because of budget cuts, the kindergarten students at her school began their experience of school in a packed room of 39 crying 5 year olds presided over by one wildly outnumbered and incredibly stressed teacher (teacher's aides have been cut years ago).

But I'm sure that government spending is totally out of control and it will do the economy loads of good to cut it, even if we have to blow up financial markets for a second time in the space of 5 years to prune out all this waste and corruption.

San Francisco, Autonomy, and the Transformation of Business: Nathan Heller in the New Yorker

In The Fourth Economy I argue that a new economy is emerging, one as disruptive and transformational as the emergence of the Industrial and Information Economies.  The rise of the individual that transformed religion, politics, and finance will now change business. The corporation early in the 20th century will be transformed as much as was the church during the Protestant Revolution or the State was during the time of Democratic Revolution. 

Changing business to accommodate the individual - giving people more autonomy - is something that Nathan Heller reports on a piece about San Francisco in the New Yorker, Bay Watched: How San Francisco's New Entrepreneurial Culture is Changing the Country

People ... tend to regard success in terms of autonomy—designing your life as you want—rather than Napoleonic domination.“The ecosystem used to funnel lots of talented people into a few clear winners,” he told me that morning. “Now it’s funnelling lots of talented people into lots of experiments.” Why be Gordon Gekko when you could make enough to have a nice place and go paleo on local greens—and then take a day or two off to cycle out to Stinson Beach? Isn’t that freedom more distinguishing than cash or a C.E.O. title, which everybody in your field has access to? San Francisco’s young entrepreneurs appear less concerned about flaunting their earnings than about showing that they can act imaginatively, with conspicuously noble ethics.“The word ‘entrepreneur’ has undergone a redefinition,” Ben Casnocha told me over lunch one day at LinkedIn’s Mountain View campus, down the road from Google. “For a while, it was like you’re either running the laundromat or the coffee shop, or you’re trying to create the next Apple. But there’s been a whole flourishing of people who are starting different kinds of businesses—who are having pride in a small business that gives them autonomy.”

Heller looks at a variety of people who are creating businesses as a means to create a lifestyle, the sort of thing Timothy Ferriss explores in the 4-Hour Workweek.

Philosophers talk about three kinds of goods: goods to have, goods to do, and goods to be. When economists talk about economic goods the assumption is that they're only talking about economic goods to have: products. But as people become more interested in deeper happiness, as they move from a focus on goods to have to goods to do, then corporations too will need to evolve. 
The corporation has rather brilliantly learned how to make economic goods to have and make us want them. But as we have more goods, additional goods (to have) have less power to make us happy. The prosperity that corporations has helped us to attain is beginning to make the focus on goods (to have) obsolete. If so, corporations will have to change work as much as they changed products, shifting their expertise from just goods to have to goods to do. Corporations will be designed to created engaging, meaningful work. 
Curiously, corporations are becoming a more common option for entrepreneurs looking for startup funding. Heller touches on this, 
In recent years, the Bay Area has grown into a hunting ground for “strategic” venture capital: firms under the aegis of big corporations. That’s because funding a startup—maybe with an eye to acquiring its technology and users—has become more efficient than traditional R. & D.

But if corporations want to succeed with these acquisitions, they have to understand this fundamental impulse towards autonomy that has fueled progress and change since the Dark Ages. People want to choose the products they buy when they can afford them. They also want to choose the work they do - and how they do it - when they have the chance. Autonomy does not mean a lack of accountability or license to be irresponsible. It does mean a shift in control, though, and that is something corporations are as reluctant to give up as was the medieval Church.

The West defined itself by a series of institutional transformations. First it was freedom of worship, then political freedom, then freedom to pursue the American Dream through whatever mix of credit and investment a family could obtain from financial markets. Power over religion, politics, and finance has been taken from popes, monarchs, and bankers and given to the individual. The Fourth, Entrepreneurial Economy will do the same thing for business, giving autonomy to the individual as employee.The fact that employees will become increasingly entrepreneurial, as likely to focus on equity creation as product creation, will come to be seen as merely an enabler of this process, not the focus.

For a glimmer of what that future might look like, you would do well to read Heller's article about what's going on in San Francisco.

12 October 2013

Time for a Product Redesign of Congress

Last week I watched Romeo & Juliet at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. It was considerably changed – new title, new actors, music and lyrics substituted for lines – but it still ended tragically. Which brings us to Congress.

We have a tendency to see personality as a cause of problems when often it is just another effect of a poorly designed system. People frustrated with products –from poorly designed schools to badly designed software – have bad attitudes.

We don’t normally think of social norms or institutions as inventions, much less as designed. But progress has depended not just on the technological inventions like steam engines and computers but also on social invention like banks and corporations.

The catch-22 of Congress is that while Americans hate Congress, most really like their representative. Only 17% of Americans are content with government while 77% are either angry or frustrated.  The approval level for Congress is not much higher than the margin of sampling error, so it is possible that no one is happy with this product. Dysfunctional government has surpassed the economy as Americans biggest concern. But if the problem is bad people in Congress, why does the average Congressperson win by 33%?

We can blame it on personalities but dysfunctional sounds more like a design problem. 

When a product works poorly and customers hate it, there are a couple of good options.

One is to find a new supplier. While it’s theoretically possible and oddly fascinating to consider outsourcing government to the popular Swedish Social Democrats or the economically successful Chinese Communists, that seems unlikely.

Another option is product redesign. For technological inventions like cars, we do this all the time. By contrast, such an approach is rare for social inventions. Car designers assume at least two things: Benz, Diesel and Ford were geniuses but in the century since they launched their vision onto the world, there have been technology and design advances worth incorporating. The intention of a car has changed little in the last century but its design and performance has. By contrast, Americans cling to social inventions centuries old. If Jefferson, Adams, and friends came forward to 2013 with the same intentions for a representative, modern government it is easy to believe that they would exploit technologies as varied as smart phones, instant polling, brainstorming, collaborative design, video conferencing, and systems simulation.  It is one of the more fascinating things about human nature that we laud revolutionaries who throw off convention and then show our respect for them through slavish imitation. Rather than imitate what they thought we could imitate how they thought.

Here are just a couple of product redesign ideas for Congress.  I’m sure there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other possibilities and once we start a conversation about product redesign, ideas for redesign will become increasingly sophisticated and appealing.

One is that we’d get past budget stalemates by changing the process in Congress. With 435 members of the House of Representatives, each district should have about 0.2% influence on the final budget. Each representative could submit a budget (perhaps rounded to no more detail than a sum for each department or to the level of programs w/in departments) that would get averaged into the total. No representative or district would have more or less influence over the process than another. The congressman who voted to double defense spending might be offset by the congresswoman who voted to halve it. Every district – whether it represented views the rest of the nation considered radically right or left, anti-environment or anti-war, hugely generous or incredibly stingy – would have equal representation. A similar approach could be defined for taxes. Budget would simply be the product of the averages of each representative – whose votes would be public record. Budget stalemates would be impossible, as would any one district being ignored or getting special concessions.

Another, more radical, re-design possibility would be to go with the money.  Lobbyists rarely (never?) come from just one district. They represent groups who have a shared identity, from interfaith assemblies to pharmaceutical companies to construction workers. Perhaps we could give each American three groups they could elect to represent them, doing away with geographic districts in this age of globalization in which even spouses might live on opposite coasts. People might be better represented by shared interests or worldviews than they are by shared rainfall. We could all have a lobbyist and call them our representative.

The fact is, frustration with Congress is growing. It might be because they are all bums. Or it could be because our representative government is about the only technology we use from the 18th century. Our representative system was designed in a time when it took days for messages to travel from a district to DC. It’s not as though we’re in the political equivalent of a Model T. It’s worse. Our government design assumes we’re in horse drawn carriages.

Perhaps the reason Congress is dysfunctional is not because we keep electing the wrong people any more than Romeo and Juliet ends sadly because they keep casting the wrong actors.  It might be time to consider that Congress is an obsolete design.

11 October 2013

On the 100th Anniversary of Henry Ford's Doubling Wages, Here's a City That's Doing It Again

The bureau of Labor Statistics casually announced that wages in San Mateo are up 14.8% in the last year. That's huge. But a big reason for this is a really startling increase within the IT world. The BLS reports:
Within San Mateo, an average weekly wage gain of $2,996 or 104.1 percent in
information had the largest contribution to the increase in average weekly wages.

A weekly gain of $3,000 works out to an annual raise of over $150,000. These people, on average, doubled their annual salary from $150,000 to $300,000.

When Henry Ford doubled wages to $5 a day in 1914, he helped to ignite a revolution in work that helped to create a middle class. I'd say that on the anniversary of this momentous business history, San Mateo has found a great way to celebrate.

San Mateo, south of San Francisco and north of Palo Alto, is in the heart of Silicon Valley.  It's not as though there are just a handful of IT folks in that part of the world. Note, too, that this doubling of wages isn't speculative. It happened. And largely without fanfare. But what if this spread beyond the boundaries of Silicon Valley?

Imagine, 100 years after Henry Ford did it, communities again doubled prevailing wages within a year. What sort of class would that create?

Note: This article in the San Jose Mercury News posted in July shows San Mateo County workers having an average weekly salary of $3,240. That includes everyone - not just IT. This is not just a 100% raise over the previous year. It is more than 50% higher than the next highest paid county (New York, which includes Manhattan and Wall Street).
Now it could be that average wages really went up that much and that within IT the average wage of $300,000 means that for everyone in tech making only $100k there is someone making $500k. It is also possible that for every 1,000 guys making only $100k there is someone who exercised stock options worth $200 million. And Facebook did go public, so something like that may have happened.
In any case, it seems further evidence that what Henry Ford did for manufacturing workers with the assembly line, Silicon Valley could do for knowledge workers with entrepreneurship and stock options.

LL GOP - Why the Country Has Come to Loathe Republicans

Last night there was another poll and another drop in approval for Republicans.

LL Cool J was the rapper name adopted by James Smith. It means Ladies Love Cool James but of course the beauty of the name is that it still applies whether they love him, merely like him, or come to loathe him. In the last quarter century, the country has gone from loving to liking to loathing the GOP.

The simple reason is revealed in the latest poll that shows a 24% favorable view of Republicans. (By contrast, Obama's approval rating just went up 2 points, from 45% to 47%.) At the heart of this disapproval is this: 70% of Americans believe that the Republicans are putting politics ahead of what is best for the country. 

The Republicans have made it clear that they want to defund Obamacare, voting at least 42 times to defund the law. 42. Think about the time wasted, as if the House had given itself over to interpretative dance engaged in a series of symbolic gestures that make rain dances look like a good use of time.

One gets the sense that negotiations would go more quickly if Obama skipped talking to the middlemen and just sat down directly with the Koch brothers, who plotted this government shutdown immediately after Obama was re-elected. Yesterday the Koch brothers announced that they didn't want a shutdown and by day's end Boehner had made his first proposal to at least extend the debt limit. Boehner had previously ignored the public in his refusal to open government and even fellow House Republicans (refusing to let them vote to re-open government). While Boehner is unresponsive to the public and his fellow Republicans, he is responsive to the Koch brothers. And for good reason: they are now worth more than the federal government has left in cash. (As of yesterday, the government's dwindling supply of money was down to $32 billion, which works out to about $100 per American. By contrast, the Koch brothers are worth $72 billion, which works out to about $36 billion per Koch brother.)

But with 70% of Americans convinced that Republicans are more intent on playing politics than caring for the country, it is no wonder that Republican approval has dropped to an historic low. Because the perception is real: what Republicans are doing in a desperate bid to stop Obamacare would put the country back into recession.

Quite simply, if we don't extend the debt ceiling, government spending will stop. There will not be enough money to pay social security, medicare, government contractors ... well, essentially every beneficiary of government, including bond holders. The treasury department, faced with a shortage of funds, does not have the authority to decide which bills to pay and which to ignore. A default on bond payments will roil international markets and most likely result in a rise in the interest rate for future government bonds, raising the deficit by raising the cost of government. And this will clearly be the result of politicians who are so intent on keeping the country unsullied by universal healthcare that they're willing to plunge us back into recession. 

Now apparently 30% of the country do not believe that Republicans care more about politics than the country they wish to govern. They are the ones who think that default on our debt is something benign, like failing to leave a tip at a restaurant. This sort of dismissal of consequences doesn't just show a lack of understanding of the economy; it shows a real disconnect between their strategy and their understanding. The strategy of threatening not to extend the debt limit depends on that being a credible threat; if it really were not a threat it would not be a leverage point. It is illogical to simultaneously believe there will be no harm in failing to extend the debt limit and use the threat of it to coerce Obama.

Bottom line, the Republicans have taken the economy hostage and are threatening to hurt it if Obama does not give in to their demands. As it turns out, while only a portion of the American people readily identify with Obama or Republicans, a huge swath of us identify with the economy. This is our livelihood. If you threaten that, you threaten us. The fact that Republicans have shown such disregard for the American Dream in their pursuit of their conservative mirage is the simplest reason that Americans have come to loathe Republicans.

10 October 2013

This Incredible Video Shows What It's Like to Win a Nobel Prize

Hard to imagine anything better than winning a Nobel Prize. If you want to get some sense of what a thrill it is, look at this reaction of Doris Lessing when she learns that she's won.

09 October 2013

What We Need is an Intervention - Iyeoka "Say Yes" (Official Video)

Hard to believe that if either Obama or Boehner had the sense to send Iyeoka to ask for a "Yes" this whole impasse wouldn't be over in about 3 1/2 minutes.
I love her voice.

08 October 2013

Why This Optimist Is So Pessimistic About DC Avoiding Economic Catastrophe

DC is going to screw this up. I hope I'm wrong but it seems to me inevitable.

One, Obama will not negotiate. 

There is a perfectly good reason for this. If Republicans can pass any legislation they want by shutting down government, they essentially run the whole government even though they have only one of three pieces traditionally needed for passing legislation. (The House can't pass legislation without the White House and Senate.) Republicans will have proven that they can dictate anything - even something as distasteful as dismantling Obama's signature legislation. It would be like asking FDR to give up the new deal or asking Reagan to give up on cutting taxes. Romney campaigned on exactly this (repealing Obamacare) and lost. To let House Republicans stop Obamacare would be the same as telling the American people that it doesn't matter if they voted for a Democratic Senate and President; the Republican agenda is what they'll get. 

If Obama negotiates he doesn't just turn over his agenda to the Republicans who have now turned their agenda over to the Tea Party. He would essentially be telling the American people that majorities no longer matter; the 18% of Congressional districts who voted Tea Party are now calling the shots, the rest of the country be damned.

Because of this, Obama is not bluffing. He won't negotiate. 

Two, the Republicans won't negotiate.

There is a perfectly good reason for this. Republicans believe government spending is bad for the economy. Shutting down government - in their minds - is a good thing, something that will liberate the economy like an Ayn Rand character freed from social obligations. Even the thought of not raising the debt limit sounds to them like a good idea. It's not that they don't care about the economy, it's that they don't understand how it works. The lesson they learned from the last debt ceiling negotiations was that we have too much debt, not that the threat of not paying their bills will make the stock market and larger economy stumble, perhaps even fall.

Rand Paul was named after a woman who proved her economic philosophy through novels. The Tea Party has no interest in an empirical method that suggests that abrupt changes in government spending could hurt the economy or that carbon emissions might cause climate change or that the earth actually circles the sun. They have beliefs and don't want them challenged. It's not even obvious that these social conservatives are any more interested in the economic progress that challenges their beliefs and traditions than are Afghan tribal leaders. Plus, economic catastrophe would prove that they were right about the dangers of debt.

The Republicans won't negotiate. They don't see any reason to fund government or pay their bills. You would think that with a 70% disapproval rate, they would care about re-election but they only run in their districts. While the rest of the nation is outraged, their constituents are cheering them on. 

I've read that the Republicans are so intent on drowning the captain that they'll sink the ship. I don't think they're that malicious. I just think that they've been on a ship for so long they have no idea what it means to be in water. The Tea Party is not evil, they're just clueless. To segue into another metaphor, right now, the nation is trying to talk a toddler into giving up the handgun its pointing around the room. The toddler has no idea what the gun could do and anyone who comes close is in danger.

Someone is getting shot. That seems certain. We can only hope that won't be a bloodbath before it's over.

04 October 2013

Obama - the Poor Communicator

Obama could take a lesson from FDR and get more done by simply communicating more.

In FDR’s era, the media was largely conservative. It has been estimated that in the New Deal years, editorial pages of about 60 to 80 percent of newspapers opposed him. Regions now liberal, such as New England, were reliably Republican in those days; not a single Boston newspaper endorsed him in 1932. (Two decades later, little had changed; before John Kennedy became the first post-Civil War Democratic senator from Massachusetts, only one Boston daily, to which his father had recently given a large donation, endorsed him. As JFK commented, “You know, we had to buy that fucking newspaper.”) [p. 136 of Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness]

Ghaemi goes on to mention that FDR held a couple of press conferences most weeks – an average of about 77 a year. 

By contrast, Obama held 79. For his entire first term.

Of course Reagan was considered the Great Communicator and he only had 27 press conferences during his first term. Reagan was a great communicator but he didn't get much done. Reagan promised to cut government and it took him 8 years to cut government spending from 23% to 22% of GDP. Meanwhile, FDR in just his first 100 days passed major legislation that included the right to unionize, the Glass-Steagall Banking bill, agricultural subsidies, suspension of various anti-trust laws, and even money to bring electricity to poor areas, his Tennessee Valley Authority Act. And that was just a portion of the 12 major bills passed in his first 100 days. (Obama, now, has been in office for more than 1,700 days.)

For my nickel, Obama is comparing himself to two Republican presidents when he should be comparing himself to two Democrats. In spite of being such a great speech maker, he has this tendency to simply declare things rather than explain them when challenged. In this way he is more like W. Bush than Clinton. Clinton is a master at including an audience in his reasoning and seems to love doing it. By contrast, Bush had this tendency to just declare things in a way that reassured his base but never really won over anyone else. And of course when it comes to quantity of press conferences, Obama is closer to Reagan than FDR. In fact, in his first term Obama held fewer press conferences than any president since Reagan.

Arguably no president got more done than FDR. That suggests that press conferences are not a distraction from the real work of a president; they are the real work of a president. Obama faces an obstructionist House, to be sure. But it's hard to believe that he wouldn't be more effective if he didn't follow FDR's example. With a 24-7 news cycle, the press would love him for twice weekly press conferences. And including the American people in his thinking might make all the difference to his ability to get things done. 

03 October 2013

This Amazing Political Secret Could Lower Your Blood Pressure and Cause Children to Like You

It was late in life before I had a blinding flash of the obvious: I'm just one of about 300 million people in this country and I ought to be amazed and delighted whenever the federal government does anything I approve of.

I think that one of the big problems in DC right now is that we have Congresspeople unclear on a simple fact: each representative only represents about 0.2% (that's not 20% or 2% but pt-2%) of the country. And then the House of Representative has to reconcile any legislation with the Senate. And the president could veto legislation even if the Senate and the House concur. A congressperson is not at all powerful. And of course that means his or her constituents are even less so.

The folks back home in West Texas or Marin County don't want to hear that they are unlikely to get what they want in life. So anyone who wants their vote has to tell them - perhaps even believe - that they can make a difference. 

Actually, the odds are pretty high they won't. And that little truth is something we struggle to accept. So we send off plane loads of cynics and dreamers to DC. The cynics know they have little or no influence but would never admit it; the dreamers think they do.

But trust me on this when I say that embracing the fact that you're powerless will actually lower your blood pressure. It does mine. The truth is that you aren't most people. You're unique. Nobody is quite like you. And because of that, it's going to be rare that the folks in Washington are doing just what you think they ought to be doing because they're trying to please everybody who, as we pointed out earlier in this paragraph, you aren't. 

So, instead of feeling incredulous about the fact that those idiots in DC are starting an invasion of Iraq or offering healthcare to everyone as if it were as affordable as social security numbers, just remember: you're outnumbered 312 million to one. Of course they're doing something you don't agree with. In fact, it's a wonder that you aren't continually outraged. For that reason alone you ought to look at the rare occasions when policy and you line up as if you'd just won at the slot machines. Even with odds that high against you, you still win from time to time. That ought to put some swagger in your walk as you head into the voting booth.

02 October 2013

UFO Sightings, Multiple Personalities and Where Ghosts Will Live in the Future

Bernard was animated.
"I think I've hit on something," he said in a voice tight enough with excitement that it nearly squeaked. 
He looked blankly at me. "What?"
"Nothing. Go on," I said as I sat down across from him at our favorite restaurant.
Bernard is my octogenarian, invisible friend. And for invisible, he looked good. He was rather nattily attired and would have looked ready for a job interview at AARP had he not been interrupted in the middle of shaving. The entire left side of his face had a five o'clock shadow while the left side was clean shaven. Bernard;s mind was an active place and he was easily distracted.
"Well I was doing some thinking," he said, "about two phenomenon I never hear about any more."
Only Bernard would be thinking about what he was no longer hearing about. I raised an eyebrow. He continued.
"UFO sightings and multiple personality disorders. Those are two phenomenon that peaked in the decades after World War II and then just went off the radar."
"Well yeah. UFOs never did show up on radar."
He scowled, and then doodled in the white patch of sugar he'd spilled on the table. 
"Wait a minute. You put sugar in your coke Bernard?"
"It's not a regular coke," he said defensively. "It's a diet coke."
"So you put sugar in it?"
"It takes the edge off of the taste. Makes it smoother."
"Well then why wouldn't you just order regular coke?"
"Because regular has too many calories," he told me, as if that were incredibly obvious.
It was my turn to stare at him with a puzzled look. Finally I just waved my hand. "Fine. You were saying about UFOs and multiple personalities?" 
"Well it got me thinking about how they might be connected. And the most obvious thought occurred to me. Aliens weren't abducting people. That was nonsense."
"Of course," I agreed.
"They were cohabitating consciounessness with humans. It was their way of learning all about us. I mean, if you think about it, they wouldn't have physically traveled all those light years. It takes too long to send anything like a human being through space from any planet that would host intelligent life. So they would probably send something like neural networks that would substitute for, or imitate, their consciousness. And that could be beamed into human brains, if they got close enough, right? So suddenly, people are walking around with what doctors think is multiple personalities but what is actually the presence of an alien consciousness that is cohabitating with human consciousness."
"You really did retire too soon," I said. "You simply have too much free time. Could I read the menu?"
"No," he said. "You always order the same thing. A turkey Reuben."
"Yeah but I might order something different. I like to keep my options open," I told him as turned my attention from him to the menu.
Unperturbed, he continued. "Think about it. UFO sightings. Multiple personalities. Over thousands of years of human history those two events coincide within a few decades and then .." he made a magician's sort of sweep with his hands. "Poof! Vanished. Neither phenomenon to be seen or heard about again." 
"And all because of alien neural networks that can be implanted into consciousness wirelessly?"
"Yes. See, I knew that you'd see it my way." 
"I do?"
"Of course. And we're next. We're never that far behind the aliens. We just had a spacecraft leave our solar system. Soon we' will also have neural nets masquerading as human consciousness. But think about what will happen when we start using neural networks to simulate consciousness."
"We have computers that can beat Grand Master Chess Champions? We're doing that Bernard."
He paused. For just for instant. "But think about mimicking your consciousness. It would be like cloning your mind."
"Cloning my mind?"
"Sure. and then you could multiply consciousness so that instead of toggling between reading an email and reading a book and chatting with someone online and ... well you could assign these little consciousness bots to do online tasks for you. Think how much you could get done."
"So these little you's, these multipliers of your personality or consciousness would be out there on the Internet basically doing all the things you've got the inclination but not the time for?"
"Yes!" And Bernard threw up his arms excitedly, nearly knocking my Reuben out of the hands of the waitress as she approached our table.
"Hmm," I scratched my chin. "Couldn't that cause a problem with ghosts?"
"Well let's say that you've sent all these little consciousness bots out into the Internet. And then you get hit by a truck. Wouldn't they still be out there reading things, leaving comments, chatting with your friends? Wouldn't that mean that you've essentially left behind ghosts on the Web?"
He was silent, contemplating this as he noisily slurped his matzo ball soup. "Well that couldn't explain ghosts," he finally said. "They were around long before the Internet." 
"But .." I started to protest and then decided to let it slide. "So, on a lighter note Bernard, who do you like for the World Series this year?"