Category Archives: Business

HBO’s Hard Knocks

HD NFL football on a big screen is amazing, and far more exciting than being at the actual game.  But the most interesting thing about football for me is the anthropology behind it, and this aspect is best documented in HBO’s annual mini-series, Hard Knocks:  Training Camp.  It’s a 5ish episode-long series that covers a different NFL team every pre-season training camp; this year they covered the Cincinnati Bengals, last year they covered the Dallas Cowboys.

I don’t talk about television much, but if I see some niche show that doesn’t get play or explanation, then I’ll get curious and write about it, like I did with the Japanese show VIKING:  The Ultimate Obstacle Course Challenge, whose genre has now grown into the Ultimate Ninja Warrior etc. shows you see on G4TV (right now there’s a series for picking the next UNW from the US).

The Hard Knocks annual series is short, but it shows rookies, veterans, and superstars as they prepare to leave for camp, as they get acclimated to the daily grind of training, and as they fight through scrimmages and become a team.  In it you see glimpses of the goofing off, the strange vocabulary used to describe different plays (that players must be able to recall within seconds or else they’ll get burned on the play), the hazing of rookies, the disparity of treatment of rookies and superstars, and the lives of kids barely out of high school thrusted into the limelight with million dollar salaries.

I started watching during the first season Hard Knocks aired (2001) when they covered the Ravens; the best moments were when Tony Siragusa, a veteran, locked the rookies in a trailer, and when they showed Shannon Sharpe’s (veteran) ridiculously tenacious training regimen.

The Cowboys series had this gem, when Roy Williams makes fun of Terrell Owens running on the beach:

The Bengals episodes also document the “Oklahoma drill”, a football drill that pits linemen against each other in a brief, explosive brawl:

This year’s Bengals season shows Chad Ochocinco, a great showman, dealing with a capricious NFL that curbs Twitter and Ustream, the two sites he uses to reach out and interact with his fans directly.

This is where it gets frustrating.  The NFL is doing this, while the NBA is doing things like fining rookie Brandon Jennings for twittering.  Needless to say (and from my own experiences getting in trouble for blogging/using social media), big organizations still don’t understand how their customers prefer to enjoy the experience they create.

Social media is one thing, but what’s inexcusable in the case of Hard Knocks is that HBO and the NFL don’t even make the Hard Knocks series available on DVD or online, once the episodes have aired on HBO and the NFL Network!  In other words, if I wanted to purchase Hard Knocks or rent it, I wouldn’t be able to unless I caught it on TV.  Sort of a live performance type of experience.

This makes no sense.  It makes me ask one of my personal “Rules of Running Successful Business” questions:  I want to give you money!  Why are you making it so hard for me to give you money?

The Wikipedia page of course has more info on it than the actual site.  And it’s likely that even the YouTube videos I post here will stop working once HBO or the NFL catches wind of them.  Why do companies do this?  Why do they need to control distribution even at the threat of losing their own word of mouth force multiplier?  How can they make money with such bad operating practices?

It’s really a shame, because the NFL is sitting on a massive goldmine with letting people see behind the gridiron and into the business, training, and raising of NFL athletes and organizations.  Hard Knocks is just a little taste of what the NFL is really like, and what we end up seeing every weekend is just a facade; in fact it took the recent policy shift from the NFL on treating NFL players’ concussions with more gravity to show that the game is less like a video game with faceless players and more of one where kids start off playing peewee football, train their entire school careers, and then cash in in the NFL, only to become feebled old hobbling elderly men.

Hard Knocks shows the humanity of the game, and I’d argue the NFL could use more of it.

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Filed under Business, Sports

On the Health Care Debate

[read my previous post on this subject for more context]

Tea Party Rally (Again)

On Wednesday, I went on a 5 mile run to the Capitol and back to my apartment before my afternoon shift of work began.  On the west lawn of the Capitol was a fairly sizeable Tea Party rally that took up most of the greens.  I’d heard a whiff of this rally while reading some of the political blogs, knowing that Michele Bachmann would be leading it, but knew little else.  There were more people than I thought there’d be, I suppose, and filling that lawn was pretty decent.

I stopped at the half-point of my run to walk through the rally and to get a sense of what it was like.  I’d seen the previous Tea Party that was held on the Washington Mall; it was much larger and more boisterous.  The stories and photos online of some of the horribly racist, offensive, and ignorant things at the rally were true:  that first rally really was a national disgrace and a panoply of the worst elements you could imagine.

However, this rally on Wednesday was not much like the previous one.  Gone were the disgusting signs, replaced with signs that were far more focused on just health care and big government (and not the panoply of other conservative pet issues).  It looked much more like a good ol’ fashioned American political protest.

The signs still compared Obama to socialism and communism, implying that he endorses Mao, that sort of stuff.  But this at least makes sense from the perspective of people who believe that Obama is ushering in a predatory government.  I have no problem with that line of reasoning from the Tea Party.

The audience seemed to be more fit this time, fewer obese and grossly overweight families. I would attribute this to the rally taking place on a weekday and with much less fanfare:  people from the midwest and south couldn’t make the trip out for this one, because they had to work.  This is just a hypothesis, though.  The people at Wednesday’s rally seemed like the smarter, more politically savvy/motivated types.

The rally was, again, composed almost entirely of white people, most approaching their 50s or older.  Again, most of the blacks, Latinos, etc. were DC and Capitol security.

Abortion

This rally seemed only tainted by the large number of anti-abortion demonstrations, whereas the earlier rally in September only had anti-abortionists as a fringe element.  But these people seemed to take center stage.  I stopped by one demonstration, in which a man dressed up as the Grim Reaper with black covering his face, used a megaphone to mock Reid and Pelosi.  Those two were played by characters wearing suits but covered in fake blood, locked in chains attached to fake baby fetuses.  “Reid” and “Pelosi” wailed while the Grim Reaper taunted them about supporting abortion.  I thought this was pretty grotesque, some sort of macabre scene you’d picture right before a stake-burning in Victorian England of some village witch.

I didn’t stay long, so I missed witnessing what some pretty decent independent reporting published about later that day:

“A seemingly endless parade of speakers seemed to encompass virtually the whole of the House GOP caucus.

“What really set this event apart from all others is that the long list of Republican lawmakers assembled before the crowd did so as part of a day’s work in Congress on the steps of U.S. Capitol, cheerfully facing a barrage of signs that decried Pelosi and President Barack Obama as socialists, and the president as a usurper and transgressor of the Constitution.

“Sure, you’ve heard that that story before, even bits and pieces of it out of the mouths of individual members of Congress. And, yes, U.S. senators and representatives have been present before on podiums where the Obama-as-fascist-socialist-Marxist-Muslim-foreigner story revealed itself in the chants and signage of protesters. But here was the leader of the House Republicans, addressing just such a crowd as part of his day job, leading perhaps 20 members of Congress to join that fray.”

Big Weekend

This latest rally was a last-ditch attempt to lobby Congress to block “Obamacare”, which was debated extensively yesterday (Saturday) for a vote later that evening.  I went for another run to the Capitol yesterday and there was a much smaller rally on the southeast Capitol lawn, participating I suppose in a vigil during the health care wrangling inside the building.

The President’s convoy was seen leaving the Capitol to the White House, and later I saw the Marine 1 helo convoy leaving the White House to God knows where.  It was a busy day on the Hill while the rest of us DCists enjoyed our beautifully sunny and unseasonable warm weekends.

It’s pretty satisfying to be drinking beer with friends at a bar and see your House Representatives still slaving away at work.

Last night the House passed the bill and no one really knows what it all means and none of it probably matters till the Senate is ready to vote, anyway.

Here Comes the Opinion

So here’s my take on all this.   Please read my previous post on the Tea Party for more context, first.

First of all, I think the Tea Party is intellectually bankrupt.  The Gadsden flag, a yellow flag with a snake on it, accompanied by the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”, is the prominent symbol displayed.  This rattlesnake symbology is not really relevant anymore.  Said Benjamin Franklin of the rattlesnake:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

This played well when America was an upstart group of colonies finding its cajones against an imperial British oppressor.  Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project also plays off the rattlesnake, cut into 13 pieces for the original colonies.  What the Hell is this supposed to symbolize back to the past?  We should return to the colonial days before the Revolutionary War?  Doesn’t it seem kind of silly to treat the world superpower as a rattlesnake that will bite if it’s not left alone?

History_of_US_flags_med

Surely the thought behind this is that common working folk in America just want to be left alone and not be harassed with a corrupt, growing government welfare nanny state that usurps them through taxation.

Fine.  But tie this into health care.  Health care costs have skyrocketed and the system is not sustainable.  The middle states will be even more burdened by this inflation of costs as the jobs that currently exist there disappear, combined with atrophying job skills.

Seriously, you want to be left alone?  The American way of life will cease to be if you just want to be left alone.  Encroaching corporate interests, already brethren with government regulatory precedents, are Big Brother’s brothers and sisters.  You have as much to fear from big business as you do from Big Brother.

A Revised Mission Statement

The spirit of the Tea Party should be thus:  elites, whether they be government or business, are encroaching on our personal rights and freedoms.  Elites, whether they be government or business, seek fees, taxes, scams, oligopolies, and changes in the law in order to take away our hard-earning money.  We, Americans, coming from a capitalist tradition, value first amendment rights, competition, and fairness above all.

Playing business off government is the only way to ensure proper competition:  left alone, they will corrupt each other to take advantage of the people.  Health care is uncompetitive, with 90% market concentration in some states.  Telecom, retail (see grocery store shelf-space positioning), sports teams, et al are just some of the sectors in which we do not benefit from competitive markets but instead only have an illusion of competition.  Yes, you have 20,000 products to choose from, but they’re owned by 5 companies.  Yes, you have several telecom providers to choose from, but they all fix prices to be very similar, block new entrants, and are notoriously opaque about their operating practices.  Yes, there are plenty of sports teams, but any attempts to compete against their leagues results in failure and artificially priced closed markets.

This is what the Tea Party should rally against.  When I can see Drudge Report going off on Obama’s spending, and then go to Huffington Post to see them complaining against GM and Goldman Sachs funneling taxpayer money out to executives, there SHOULD be common interest there.

Democrats and Republicans enjoy the two-party system because they have no viable competition from new entrants.  They can play off each other as it suits them and take bribes and lobbying knowing that any corruption is just written off as DC politics and not as a referendum to kill that party entirely.

The Tea Party has glimpses of being this way:  it sounds like Palin and Beck are playing the populist drumbeat, fighting against the big party Republicans like Gingrich in, for example, east coast politics.  But the bottom line is that the Tea Party is organized and motivated by staunchly conservative lobbyists.  It is not grassroots by any means.

The Tea Party should attack it as big interests dividing and conquering the American citizen.

That the House GOP caucus made an appearance at the latest Tea Party rally might end up being a key moment.  These career politicians and lobbyists, in an effort to thwart Obama and health care reform, are throwing their lot in with the anti-federal government right-wing that could just as easily turn on their masters and throw the top Republicans to the wolves when the wind changes.

So this is why I can’t take the Tea Party seriously.  Clearly we need to break open all the monopolies and oligopolies that exist throughout our systems, but it won’t happen.  Clearly the Tea Party could forge itself as the strong Public point of the triangle between Government, Business, and Public, but seeing as how the Tea Party is conservative, that makes it anti-union and anti-anyone who isn’t of the party (i.e. immigrants, minorities, the coasters).

When I was at Georgetown, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin came to speak about voting systems in the US.  One of the ideas floated about in this discussion was having a multi-party election where conceivably you could come in second in every state and still win, because the people who came in first in every state were all different.  That is, if there were 3 states voting:

Alabama:  #1 A, #2 B, #3 C, #4 D

California:  #1 C, #2 B, #3 A, #4 D

Texas:  #1 D, #2 B, #3 A, #4 C

Then B would win, because it’d have gotten the highest number of higher positions.  What this conveys is that party politics would become more about consensus, and not winner-takes-all.  It incentivizes being less radical.  It captures the silent majority’s opinions, which both the Democrats and Republicans both routinely claim backs them.

A viable third party would need something like this in order to ever be successful.

Some Final Points

Health Care Chickenhawks

A chickenhawk is someone who pushes for military aggression (usually conservative) without having ever served in the armed forces.  But from time to time, Republicans have dared attack the only socialized medicine in the US outside of Medicare:  military health care.  Take Tom Tancredo, racist former presidential candidate.  He argued that veterans want vouchers (lol, the only people who know what vouchers are are creative libertarians) instead of their government-provided health care.

Problem was, I guess he didn’t know his opponent, Markos Koulitsas, was a US Army veteran!  I guess he just assumed that a liberal must be a pussy who would never fight.

So Markos laughs at Tom and calls Tancredo out for getting a deferment from Vietnam because he had depression.  Tancredo got pissy and stormed off the set.

Chickenhawks are pretty vile because there’s a slew of them who continually send our nation’s children to war without having been to war themselves.  This is a cardinal sin for anyone who’s been in the military:  you don’t ask your soldiers to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself.   The list of Republicans, I might add, who never served, is pretty substantial.

The list is not exactly partial, nor does it include Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, who clearly never served, themselves.  But let’s be honest.  No left-wingers like Reid or Pelosi either, so it’s funny to see the right attack those two and expect a defense from progressives.  They’ll get very little response.

My opinion is that I would rather have an integrated, digital health care 2.0.  I enjoyed the days of walking into the Army clinic to get my yearly physical or shots or whatever and never having to worry about paperwork.  It was done without my having to push it through the whole way.

Certainly, if I need some heart transplant, I’d want to pay for the best doctor I could find.  But for most stuff?  To include preventative treatment (which went out the door because of rising health care costs)?  I’d rather walk into a government clinic, have it done, and never worry about it again.

Slack-Jawed Ideologues

The chickenhawks are examples of a larger trend:  Republican ideologues are increasingly career politicians.  No military experience, no public policy experience.  They didn’t earn their way up through any institutions.  They’ve been tucked away in think-tanks and lobbyist groups.  They have no actual experience running anything, and if they did, it probably failed (see Bush the Younger, or Rove/Rumsfeld during Nixon).

Go ahead!  Wiki it.  Pick a Republican leader and see what his/her background is.  John Boehner?  He got a “bad back” and dropped out of the military, to go become a prolific House tearjerker.  Phil Gramm?  Got into military academy because of his dad, but then didn’t join the military.  Studied economics instead, and went totally neo-liberal/Friedman (a fiery mess of economics we’re still recovering from, in reality and intellectually).  Rush Limbaugh?  Family of lawyers, was classified as injured and so was an emergency Vietnam draftee never called up.  Glenn Beck?  He was a morning zoo jockey!

I mean those were the first (and most notable) names I came up with!  Total hacks.  There’s absolutely no experience running anything except a media juggernaut or a courtroom there. [Note:  Reid and Pelosi were little better…]

What’s worse:  half these folks go absolutely gay for Ayn Rand.  You know Ayn Rand.  Fountainhead.  Atlas Shrugged.   Yes, she was a fiction author.  FICTION.  See this biographer talk about Rand on the Daily Show (I apologize for the lefty link).  Yet she’s the heroine of some movement for entrepreneurship.  Really?  How many of today’s tech/social entrepreneurs love Ayn Rand?  The selfishness and lack of empathy is so perfectly captured in Stephen Colbert’s book title, “I Am America (and So Can You!)”.  It’s a wonderful mix of rugged narcissism and consumerism and desire for success all wrapped up in one.  Even “Don’t Tread on Me” is essentially a selfish slogan.  Quite a bit deal different than my old Special Forces unit’s motto, “De Oppresso Liber”, or “To Free the Oppressed” (or alternate translations).

Business

Excuse me, but if you love small business or any kind of business, why would you advocate that businesses should have to provide health care coverage?  This saddles businesses with paperwork, operating costs, and a lot of headaches that reduce their competitiveness worldwide.

Competition

It is no lie that America is home to commerce.  But it’s also true that the US has some of the least competitive markets in the world.  And these markets are backed by government subsidy and loose regulation.

The same for health care.  For Americans who value competition so much, it just seems ignorant that they wouldn’t seek to have more competition for health care insurance providers.

I can seen an argument that the government should not get into health insurance, because governments tend to grow in influence and power and crowd out business.  Okay, I can buy that.  That’s why you have to have a legal spirit of regulation allowing for a government option to compete vigorously against private interests.  The government option’s interest is in protecting the health of its citizens, while the private interest is to make profit.

These two must be put together in a system which encourages them to compete.  This is the only way to make it sustainable.

Balance of Powers

To me, there should be a vigorously-fought balance between Government, Business, Citizenry, and the Media.

Government is currently made up of lawyers.  It should be made up of public policy people whose only interest is to protect and encourage the Citizenry to be more active.  That is, make sure the Citizenry is healthy, happy, and has protections and rights.

Business seeks profit.  It is doing its job just fine in America, but it corrupts the country through lax regulation.  While I see business as working fairly successfully, I see the Government as having been infiltrated by private interests and lobbyists so that the Government has not been doing its job of protecting the Citizenry’s interest.

Citizenry needs to hold Government and Business to account.  Contesting large amounts of tax payer money for programs is key.  But so is attacking companies that pollute the Citizenry’s land and environment.  So is attacking the media for not providing them proper information.

The media could also use more competition.  MSNBC and FOXNews are as partisan as you can get, and offer no value to the Citizenry at all.  CNN is just plain worthless.  There are plenty of journalists who are trained and professional enough to seek multiple views for their stories, but a corporate-dominated media structure means that ratings win, and the best way to get ratings is through opinion.  Despite government-run organizations like NPR, PBS, and BBC providing good reporting, the Internet has now turned into the best source of news.

The Internet I did not include because it’s a medium, not a “branch” of government.  But the Internet is the only place that still has options for the Citizenry to disrupt the other branches.  This may change.  If the Citizenry wants to maintain any sort of fingerhold on Business and Government, it needs to ensure that the Internet is a public space for the Citizenry to organize, learn, innovate, and experiment.

Boy, have I digressed…  Sorry for this sprawling post.

[P.S. A couple Tea Party links.  1:  divisions amongst the ranks.  2:  some in Tea Party promote Russian analyst’s US-breakup prediction.]

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Filed under Business, Economics, Government, Health, Internet, Policy, Politics

Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

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Filed under Anthropology, Business, Computers, Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, Policy, Tech

Surpluses and Shortages

I’m moving out of my Georgetown rowhouse and just started my job, so I’ve been a little busy and haven’t been able to write much.  That’s one reason Twitter is so great — I’ve been able to just send some quick tweets (the other reason it’s so great is its generativity (see Jonathan Zittrain) — Twitter provides such a vast platform/ecosystem for other ideas to thrive in).

[edit:  I didn’t know this until after I published the post, but apparently the Pop!Tech 2008 conference was focused on the subject of abundance and scarcity.  Fitting!  Here’s the opening video presentation that the Pop!Tech conference began with.]

Anyway, since it’s been so long, I’m going to ramble a bit.  The blog is still great for that.

When I took all my money out of the market back in September/October of 2007, I did it because there were vapor bids on all the stocks out there.  Nothing was supporting any equities.  About two years later, the financial markets have stabilized quite a bit, with the TED spread finally dropping back to the levels before the markets got a whiff of collateralized debt obligations going sour.  Companies have shed a lot of jobs and have made a lot of cutbacks.

As an investor, I’m feeling a lot safer about putting my money back in.  I wanted to wait until at least this summer, when a lot of mortgage and housing resets hit the market.  Now is the dreaded velocity period of August-October, when the market is most likely to crash, historically.  But it can also rally pretty strongly in that time period — I think this has something to do with new fiscal years beginning and a lot of annual inflows/outflows taking place around that time.

I’m still only interested in Amazon ($AMZN) stock, but since it’s already pretty high I have to leave it alone.  There is no other stock out there worth holding right now, in my opinion.  I suspect the next big runner in tech will be a Facebook IPO or perhaps Yahoo! ($YHOO), if  they can ever find a moneymaker.

I went to the premiere of Barack Stars, a play showing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, done by the Second City Comedy Troupe (SCTV, some Saturday Night Live folks).  It’s a play lampooning the reverence for Obama and all the political scandals in DC lately.  One of the joke skits involved poor laid-off finance guys from NYC.

Funny to be sure (I highly recommend you go see this), but how accurate?  My suspicion is that while a lot of finance types in NYC lost their jobs, it wasn’t long before they found new ones.  All the smart money that didn’t vaporize probably went to the next unregulated market out there, or as some have hinted, towards carbon credit markets, the next bubble target according to Rolling Stone’s Matt TaibbiThe NYTimes just ran a story about how the big brokers were trading with a 3ms advantage on retail traders, racking up tons of money through arbitrage.   This just goes to show you that when you combine fierce NYC finance types with the new quant PhD players, every aspect of the market is a game that no layperson is going to win.  Back in the 90’s, daytrading was somewhat fair, but now the game is entirely stacked towards brokers.  Combine this with the scam that is now common stock:  common stock is worthless, effectively, since there’s now so many classes of preferred and private stock for the company insiders that no common stock holder is actually entitled to as much equity as he/she may have thought.

That really leaves the only effective vehicle for making money in the stock market picking solid companies that are undervalued.  Tech stocks are especially good for this; the thing about NYC types and PhD folks is that they’re not particularly good at identifying good companies.  Yes, they make money selling companies’ stock to their clients, but they come up with long bullshit reports that they charge over $100 for that just basically say how every company in a sector is worth buying.  However, if you know your tech, or you know the zeitgeist about a company, you can still stand to get a triple-bagger on a stock (triples from the price you bought at).  Long-term investing, in my opinion, is dead.  The market is set up to scam you unless there’s a major regulatory overhaul.

Anyway.  Surely there are many people who were working in NYC because of connections, hook-ups, etc. and they don’t have the goods to keep doing it.  But I bet many of the financial class either have merit-based wealth (good skills either in smooth-talking or in quant models) or status-based wealth (being born into east-coast privilege), a dichotomy discussed in John Clippinger‘s “A Crowd of One”.  In other words, they did not lose their money and leave town.  This wasn’t like the Great Depression, where people ended up leaving the cities and going back to their family farming traditions or joining the military.

Sadly, the military adventure continues.  Afghanistan now looks a lot like Iraq a few years ago.  Soldiers are still dying and money is being wasted.  To Obama’s credit, we are now pressing into the Taliban as we always should have been doing, and Robert Gates seems to be a responsible steward of the armed forces.  But the inertia of occupation still continues forth and it’s only those Americans who give a damn and enlist who seem to be paying the price.

The rest of America goes on as usual.  Unemployment is higher, for sure.  This could end up being a large problem, especially since I view those lost jobs as jobs that will never return — the high velocity of job destruction and creation requires adaptability, quick learning, and higher and higher levels of education…qualities that the American innovation and education systems are no longer producing in any citizens except wired kids, who are doing all that learning outside of the system anyway.

The fact that America and the rest of the world are still pumping away and doing okay must be because the world is just awash in money.  There are far too many people you or I or anyone can name who do not seem to have earned their money or their ease of life.  Deals that are completely nonsensical still seem to happen.  People make careers out of nothing more than proposing meetings that never happen.  Job hiring, as I’ve talked about a lot lately, is a complete farce of a system, an inane game that we all have to play.

My own impression of venture capital is that it’s become extremely risk averse and dumb money.  There are some cool angel firm ideas, seeding start-ups with a little money and lots of training.  But look at the trash they are producing.  Some incremental improvement on video watching.  Some tiny adjustment to file sharing.  Did Twitter come out of one of these programs?  No, and it never would:  it had no financial model (if you’re unimaginative, anyway, like most people) and it took a while to catch on.  As it turns out, Twitter is a massively open platform for innovation.  How do you put a valuation on that, exactly, using today’s financial models?  You can’t.  That’s why vencap and angel insistence on financial modeling is so retarded.

If the world is awash in money, why are there so many poor?  Amartya Sen intimates that there are no longer food shortages worldwide, just rationing.  More specifically, he says that no democracy has ever had a famine.  In other words, when food is allocated at least somewhat responsibly and with a conscience towards those who need it, there is enough of it.

The fact that people are poor, hungry, weak, sick, etc. has, in the past, been because of material shortages.  But now it seems as though poverty exists because of socio-political power structures.  Clientelism, warlordism, authoritarianism:  these are the systems that withhold from those who need resources to survive.

The American Republican party itself has become a curious modern system bordering on clientelism but within a democratic system.  Made up of a steeply declining older white male base of paternals, the Republicans have somehow convinced even the poor that cutting taxes, reducing responsibilities and ties to the government, and getting more privileges in society will somehow benefit everyone.  That Republicans immediately think of government as being 100% inept, refuse to pay more taxes to help out fellow Americans (even when more accountability and transparency has been promised, under Obama’s Gov2.0 plans), and yet still claim themselves to be the most patriotic Americans is absurd.  That poor, disenfranchised white people go along with it is even worse.  You have people who have never been rich before advocating that Goldman Sachs plunderers and profiteers MUST receive higher and higher bonuses in order for them to be sufficiently motivated to work at all.  What the heck?

The Republicans have successfully blended Friedman/Reagan trickle-down economics with moral conservatism — highly successful for recruiting, but only if you’re white, old, and usually rich.  No one takes them seriously in financial conservatism anymore, their having been responsible for ballooning the national deficit in the name of security.  Sadly, fiscal conservatism is probably one of their strongest platforms.  That they abandoned it gives you some idea of how defunct their party is.  Perhaps one of the biggest flaws was assuming that the “invisible hand” is naturally benevolent.  Incentives can, at some level, often be predictable, and that’s where economists and public policy people would be important for identifying where the market will exploit resources and prices to make a lot of money.  The proof of this most recently was in the financial crisis, which resulted from the market splendidly moving away from regulated areas into shadow pools through hedge funds, cascading collateralized debt obligations and packaged mortgages on top of each other.  The market did exactly what it was allowed to do.  But that impulse is not always used for good.  Does that not imply a need for government checks and balances upon ravenous capitalist incentive?

So the US needs a jumpstart to get its innovation pipeline going again.  China and India and other countries are hungrier than we are.  They want success more than we do.  And they are at least attempting to modify their education, technology, innovation, legal, and health care systems to get success.

We, meanwhile, are plodding along with a broken health care bill.  Health care is a massive taboo subject in the US and, as I’m interested in reading about lately, anywhere where there’s a taboo, there’s some deep-seated cultural issue that is a dangerous setback for that culture’s competitiveness and advancement within the international community.

Fortunately we have smart people assessing our national broadband plan (Obama has picked some great tech guys and has enlisted the Harvard Berkman Center to look at broadband).  Combined with a great secretary of education, a new CIO, et al, the US should start to pick up again in another 5 years after the investments in basic research and education start to kick in…or at least the promise of them.  The force multipliers of these basic investments will be greatly increased if Obama is elected to a second term.  I can only hope.

The Republicans see anyone in government as being inept and unable to control costs or execute even the most basic project (as David Brooks pointed out recently, this is partially true).  But what is the proposed solution?  Radical privatization?  Are we supposed to trust the “invisible hand” of the markets to manage complex human health care problems or educational pipelines?  The problem with the libertarian viewpoint is that it seems to not take much interest in HOW you actually make people healthier, or make people smarter.  You just let the market do it.  But SOMEONE has to know these things, whether it’s a government or a private company established to do that task.  In a democratic system, citizens are the deciders of how those things are done, so it is their responsibility to become better educated about their mission.  A private company’s sole task is to make money, and combined with profiteering hit-and-run executives, there is little incentive to act with accountability — unless government puts legal safeguards on it to keep it from running off the rails.  For all their talk of incentives, Republicans can be pretty selective in how they decide to employ them.

I see the US government in today’s massively complex world as being a gardener of a national ecosystem.  The libertarians are right that a government with no incentives to cut costs will use its bottomless pockets to buy influence.  But conservatives and libertarians are wrong that government cannot play a role.  It seems anti-competitive to suggest that only private companies should be the sole provider of all goods and services and public space.  The truth is that companies provide excellent goods and services, but only with intense competition.  The truth is that companies are HORRIBLE at providing public space, because giving something away is not part of their incentives.  As Naomi Klein points out, a public square lets you protest and assemble, whereas you can’t even run a camera at a shopping mall because it’s private property, let alone pass out flyers or collect petitions.

So it seems simple-minded now to not talk about an ecosystem where public companies, private companies, the government, non-government non-profits, unions, and community networks all work in the same space with and against each other.  The competitiveness imperative must be extended from not just providing good and services but to also providing public space, social capital, and public capital.

The only factor that has mitigated the lack of such space and capital has been the internet.  Its realm of free speech and free time/space has led to places for minorities and youths and fringe movements to experiment and organize.  It is no secret that social networking has exploded online, while a privatized “meatspace” has become deathly quiet in terms of social capital, as Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” book described, with the death of American civic life.

The people who created the building blocks for the internet should be recognized for their massive contribution to society and for bringing an end to a pretty savage era of radical privatization.

The internet and computing have driven storage and connection costs down rapidly, killing many industries and incumbents except those with the power to lobby our old, white Congressmen (i.e. the telcos and “entertainment” labels).  One of the only correct things Tom Friedman wrote about was how the internet, combined with globalization, led to a massive networking of human effort worldwide.

If you are to look forward, it is getting to the point where there are not many shortages left in the world to limit human progress.  I already discussed money — I do not see money as something there’s a shortage of in the world anymore.  Aggregate time is no longer a shortage.  People can be more productive with better online tools, and they are also watching less TV.  As Clay Shirky hints at, this means there’s a lot of surplus time out there now, although it’s up to us to figure out how we want to distribute that time.  Food (energy) is no longer a shortage — while we do it incredibly wastefully and unsustainably, we have figured out how to have more obese people in the world than starving.  There is not exactly a shortage of energy inputs either — “peak oil” seems highly dubious compared to when we will drastically reduce petroleum consumption, while the sun provides easily enough power to provide to the entire world.  If we just knew how to harness it properly.

We can expect processing power and time and storage to continue to plummet.  The cloud online will allow us to build holy grids of collaborative supercomputers, eventually perhaps providing a platform in which we can upload ourselves, the digital singularity.  At that point, it will be interesting to see which people stay and which people “go”.  Who will maintain the systems that keep the internet going so that we may live digitally forever?  When will that question cease to be relevant?

There is, right now, a significant limitation in one area of electronics that has hindered all othes:  energy storage.  It affects what kinds of cellphones we can use (a G1 barely lasts a day with background apps and GPS on), the miniaturization we can achieve with smarter devices, the distance our devices can be from plugs, and so on.

I was using a lot of electronics gear while I was in the Army.  Our equipment could operate off standard power, but it could also run off batteries if we were in the field.  But these batteries seemed to weigh 1-2lbs each, and we needed to replace them maybe once a day.  So if we were on a mission, we might need to carry 7-14 extra lbs of batteries, plus spares.  On top of our other gear.  Batteries just haven’t miniaturized like everything else in an electronic gadget has.  This is holding us back tremendously.  At the very least, we are starting to use RFID chips that are activated briefly by being stimulated by electrical interfaces like at metro stations.

The good news is that Obama has put $2 billion into manufacturing and research for battery technologies.  Even that has a wrinkle, according to the “Breakthrough team”, quoted in a NYTimes blog post:  if money is diverted into deployment, it will take away from basic R&D:

“The Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.”

Our inability to localize energy storage has meant that concentrated power has been the name of the game — it is the same for wifi right now, but WiMAX will make that issue obsolete.

So eventually there will be at least one valuable resource which is always limited and finite and definitive of our cultures and personalities:  individual time.  We will only have 24 hours in a day.  If our brains can handle more than one task at a time, our bodies can’t.  We still require sleep, eating, drinking, education, socialization, play, etc.  What’s more, we love to take part in those things, even so far as to do it alone or with others, whichever we have the opportunity to take part in.

What becomes most valuable to us, on an individual level, is whatever we spend our time doing.  And the chances are that it will be interacting with each other, or building things, or being creative, or relaxing.  These, as they should be, will be the most valuable things we both seek and trade and sell and share.  Time will dominate as a currency.

To some degree this is already occurring.  There are a lot of poor people willing to work for next to nothing, and their active time is being used abusively to produce stuff so we don’t have to.  We develop a product and market it and then buy and sell it, but it’s the poor people who put in the hard labor.

I’m not sure this human tendency to exploit the weak and poor will change on its own — certainly not under capitalist impulses.  Perhaps robots could take their place, ultimately becoming more productive than humans, who require food and water and sleep.  This is why some scifi people dwell so much on what happens when the robots decide they’ve had enough with us treating them like slaves.  Less a Terminator outcome than an I, Robot outcome.

The Pope released an encyclical which discussed globalization and economics at length.  I think his emphasis on helping the poor makes a great deal of sense; only through humanity’s constant effort will the number of poor be reduced.  We’re obviously not sure how that is to be done yet — but I think the development economists on the cutting edge who suggest that it has to do with leadership in government and power mainly, but then reinforced by all the other stuff:  human capital, good governance, nutrition and health, girl’s education, non-intervention, etc., are going to figure it out.

I’m not pushing for paternalistic top-down programs by any means, even if I’m talking about strong government leaders and a Catholic papacy.  Certainly I feel I’m as entrepreneurial as they come, wanting to build a massive reputation and identity platform and make big bucks from it, along with fame.  But it has a not-for-profit data-protecting component as well, and I am after all a product of mostly public institutions (public high school, UT Austin, the Army) until I went to a private institution (which is heavily influenced by Catholic Jesuit values).  I have benefited from a healthy blend of so many different structures and organizations, to include a multi-racial lineage and multiple nationalities among my family and friends, that I can hardly avoid seeing the world as REQUIRING a flourishing ecosystem of diversity and intense competition that also provides for learning and apprenticing and mentoring and teaching.

So at some point I’m looking to bring the international development component of my studies back in to my career.  But more and more this is looking like I’ll have to apply development theory to my own country, as it struggles to balance its technological and entrepreneurial bents along with entrenched and powerful radical corporatism, along with a declining propensity to seek bold policy overhauls where it needs it (education, health care).

To me, the economics of our world system demand that the most important future input will be education from low-level grade school all the way to advanced studies.  The effects of technology upon society and economics have been pervasive and profound, and in order for us to continue making breakthroughs, we’re going to need more and more advanced understanding to reach even basic levels of academic research in tomorrow’s future areas:  solar, nano, genetic modification, quantum-level, as well as reputation and forgetting/forgiving, identity, cultural anthropology, ecosystem gardening/curating, gift economics, happiness economics, etc.

The US, being so heavily reliant on its entrepreneurial technology, should be even more concerned in building up its education pipeline than any other country on the planet, because technology and risk is the US lifeblood.  So I feel as though any efforts I make in the future will have to incorporate policy and private incentives towards education.

These are my first few stabs at understanding what my career will ultimately look like, but I see them in line with the needs of the country, the trends of technology, and the progress of social demographics.  It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?

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Filed under Anthropology, Business, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, Internet, Policy, Politics, Stock Market, Tech

Job Hunting

So a lot of my friends and recent graduates are looking for jobs now.  That process is miserable, as I wrote about earlier.

I enjoyed a NYTimes article on how employers should be nice to applicants.  Now, I just got a job and had a wonderful experience, so not all employers are bad.

But many employers vacuum up resumes through non-specific and ridiculously descriptive listings.  It is no wonder that people must sift through hundreds of resumes, because companies have such unreal requirements in their listings that no one believes those requirements are real.

There’s a lot that needs improvement but the easiest thing to fix is being more responsive.  Or, I should say, responsive to begin with.

Most likely you send in a resume and never hear back at all.  How are you supposed to know whether your application was viewed and rejected, or just lost or ignored?  One friend of mine said that they forgot to look at their application-receptacle e-mail address for a few months and they had a huge backlog.  Never even viewed!

Even if it’s some form letter saying you’ve been rejected, you can at least move on with that knowledge instead of wondering.

The NYTimes article makes the case that it’s just more professional, and better business.  I do think it highly unprofessional to never hear back from someone or some firm.  Where else would you get off blowing someone off who expresses professional interest?  If there were a monetary value associated with application relations, most firms would be deeply in the red.

I think there should be a reputation tool that allows job hunters to rate firms.  If they apply for a job, they track when they sent the application in, when they heard back (if ever), and what experience they had with the entire process.  A list of the contacts they had with the firm would also be important.  Then job hunters could rate the firms with the highest quality in applicant relations.  This of course would best be bi-directional, with firms being able to do the same with applicants.

I have a lot of issues with how firms are run these days and this is one of the most visible problems out there.  Anyone want to step up and implement this idea?

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Filed under Business, Reputation

We Want No Taxation, No Representation

Financial time bombs are no longer shocking to discover these days.  Collateralized debt obligations, the American auto industry, real estate, credit, struggling state government balance sheets, etc.

IRC Stupidity

Yesterday Obama gave a speech on how health care needs to be fixed immediately as costs are spiraling out of control.  The New Yorker just had a good story on health care costs, essentially discovering that a privatization bent (prioritized over the Hippocratic Oath) was leading to ballooning costs at one Texas hospital.

On the daytrading IRC channels I’m on, people predictably took the ignorant, mouth-breathing line, extending health care costs to other financial bombs:

<piratelady> just like fed subsidized education loans brought down the cost of college…..right?
<Me> federally subsidized loans didn’t make college more expensive
<piratelady> u have your opinion, I have mine
<piratelady> not gonna argue the point

<piratelady> buffett not smarter than me ;)

<guppy> if my heathcare is going to cost less,,how are we paying for all this..
<sailohana> obama talking raising revenue…here come the taxes to pay for healthcare

<Char> why can’t we exercise some personal responsibility and get the govt out of individual lives

<jwx> your best health bet is inheriting lucky genes

<boober> Xeus, you don’t think Clinton lied about his surplus , do you?

<boober> you can believe what you want to, but the facts are in 2000 everything fell apart before 911

<sublime> you have illegals flooding the healthcare system adding to skyrocketing insurance rates and healthcare bills too

<sublime> heck let everyone come in so we go bankrupt as a nation then as they roam the streets and violence skyrockets you can look for O to save you.

The daytrading channels are generally filled with old, white retirees who are fairly well-off and pretty rabidly conservative, and, as far as I can tell, detached from modern American life.  They find Larry Kudlow and Neil Cavuto relaxing and reassuring to listen to.

Frank Rich, by the way, just wrote an insightful column, in part on Shepard Smith at FOXNews noticing a increasingly disturbing taint in the viewer e-mails he’s been receiving.

Anyway, today I read a blog post from a guy I follow at UC Berkeley:

“A public relations bomb just landed in my inbox: an email fromUC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Provost George Breslauer announcing the impending reality of horrific budget cuts across the Berkeley campus and the rest of the UC system as the state slowly faces up to fiscal reality. Instead of the 8% cuts (approximately $67.2 million) that the campus had originally projected during their budgeting process, they now anticipate that the cuts likely to be approved by the legislature will force a 20% (or $145 million) cut.”

University costs are astronomical now and they’re still expanding.  But it’s unsustainable.  Will our American education system, already in hot water for choking off its innovation pipeline in the last decade or so, be able to manage a drastic reduction in outlays for basic research, hiring professors, and recruiting international students?  I’m a little worried.

How is it that our nation has become so incompetent with its finances?  Well, to be honest, it’s not quite that simple — finances often collide with interests in promoting initiatives, expanding a business, lobbying government, etc.  So it’s not just a matter of people not knowing how to balance the books — usually it’s as a result of an organization saying, “We’re willing to go in to debt because we need to do A and B in order to grow.”

But I’m deeply worried about the strength of America’s most important institutions in the competitive international community — namely, its universities, companies, and human capital.

Ideology

I just finished reading Paul Collier’s “Wars, Guns, and Votes”.  In it, he says that security and accountability are the two keys towards bringing about democratic governments.  Without both, a “democracy” and having elections can actually bring about dictatorships, coups, and civil war.  That is, pushing democracy can actually be destructive.

An underlying idea for accountability is one that I suspected in my international development studies but which was rarely addressed:  the idea that taxation is necessary for accountability.

Taxation is a major hot button issue in the US.  Much of the conservative platform is based on the idea of less taxation.

But there is more economic literature and statistical analysis proving that in Africa, where much of the research is being conducted into how governments become stable and democratic, less taxation is actually a coping strategy by dictators and authoritarian governments.  Paul Collier makes the case in his book.

American children are taught about the famous line, “No taxation without representation.” American colonists objected to the British taxing them even though they had no political sway.

Now conservatives push for greatly reducing taxation.  This implies “no taxation” but without the “without representation”.  When we are taxed less, we do not care as much where our money goes and how it is used by the government.  We are less civically engaged.  Our leaders are held less accountable for their actions relative to what we want from them.

Granted, the relationship is not direct — it is possible to have deeply caring politicians or citizens, regardless of what their monetary interests are.  But in general, the more you are taxed out of your own money, the more you are probably going to care about how that money is being spent, in a developed country.

Says Collier:

“The critical invention of the Dutch was political accountability. People were only prepared to tolerate high taxation if the government of the state became accountable to citizens. Not all citizens, of course, but the rich citizens who were paying the taxation. Further, with an accountable state the government was able to borrow: people were prepared to lend once they saw that the government was being forced to conduct its finances in such a way that it would always be able to pay them back. The Hapsburgs found that gold and silver were not quite enough, and so they too decided to borrow. But nobody had forced them into accountability. And so the battle for the Netherlands turned into a battle of interest rates. The power of compound interest to gradually gut the finances of a profligate borrower ensured that final victory would go to the state with the better credit rating.”

Conclusion

I am not conflating increasing costs across the board with conservative allergies to taxation.  I guess my point in this post is that the US is completely confused when it comes to running budgets and controlling finances when placed against the power of the vote.

As a patriotic American, my underlying worry is that the US is losing its competitive edge and is not adequately securing its future in terms of intellectual and human capital.  We need to keep developing clever, intelligent, and responsible bureaucrats just as much as we need clever, intelligent, and responsible teachers and engineers and scientists and doctors and lawyers.

Demanding less accountability from the government is a surefire way to descend us into a failure of providing for public goods that we need to remain competitive.  In a completely privatized world, we lose our national identity and will to collaborate in order to be more competitive.  Certainly we do not want to be over-taxed, and both parties want their money to be used smartly, but there must be a Laffer curve-like medium between being taxed too much and not enough, not just for our pocket books but also for our quality of governance.

Pushing transparency in order to fulfill Collier’s social good of accountability is also big, and so I find it fulfilling to be working on Galapag.us, building an open and transparent reputation system (check out our info page on Galapag.us).  As my buddy Monkey Pope said to me about Galapag.us, “It’s amazing how I see it now in almost all aspects of life — data, the necessary transparency to see that data, and the need for tools to properly analyze that data.”.

But our basic notions of how a successful democracy operates and how to nurture that successful democracy are wrong.  I suppose it is comforting that people like Paul Collier are providing statistically-tested conclusions on what the proper notions should be.

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Filed under Africa, Business, Development, Economics, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Policy, Politics

Big, Interesting, Mysterious Pragmatic Problems

I’ve just finished a master’s program full of amazing classmates seeking policy solutions to some of the toughest problems the US and international institutions have to currently deal with.  For my part, I deeply love to spend a lot of my recreational thinking time searching for gaps in solutions to problems — entrepreneurial thinking — looking for where something is grossly inadequate and is in need of a better solution.

Better Left Unsaid?

There are certain wide swathes of areas of study that are ignored — and within them lurk many potential solutions.  I’ve gradually noticed some of these areas over the years of study and experience I’ve gathered in my life.  And I’ve often thought about why they remain ignored, and why the solutions, which some very smart people very clearly understand how to identify and implement, remain unused.

I’m reading The Wisdom of Whores:  Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS right now (thanks Kevin Donovan for lending it to me), and its author, Elizabeth Pisani (see her blog on the subject), talks about why HIV/AIDS continue to thrive.  One of the main problems is that we refuse to talk about sex realistically.  We refuse to talk about, as she says, how certain men dress as women and think of themselves as women, how young unmarried women are often more at risk for HIV/AIDS than young unmarried men, how adultery and multiple sexual partners are fairly common all around the world.  Certainly we have not been helped by Ms. Beetroot in South Africa or by George Bush’s insipid abstinence policy for Africa instead of more condom usage.

What Pisani calls it is a problem of taboos.

Taboos Make Us Act Dumb

There must be some sort of linkage between massive societal problems and taboos, because many of the gaps I’ve come across have, in some part, to do with deep cultural taboos.  Taboos around certain issues, like sex and drugs and economics, cause individuals and their government representatives and their communities to ignore debate — what comes out of that perversity is things like bars in Tokyo where Japanese businessmen go into a mock subway car and feel up girls in schoolgirl outfits, or massive failures in counter-narcotic policies, or the idea in some areas of Africa that condoms actually give you AIDS.

I remember a poignant moment when I went to New York City as part of Georgetown MSFS’s NYC alumni trip.  We went to a bar for my birthday and one of my friends brought a guest, some young girl who didn’t really seem that clued in.  We asked what she did for a living and she snootily said that she worked in “collateralized debt obligations”, spoken in such a way that we were stupid if we didn’t know what they were.  Such a phrase didn’t belong to the person speaking it (which might be a little stereotypical, I know), but as it turns out I’m willing to bet she’s out of a job right now and probably never understood the underlying securities.  I just think of that moment for its essence of cognitive dissonance and how no one understood how real estate was booming without underlying income and assets to support it.

As part of my Yahoo!/ISD research, I proposed an openness/closedness model, wherein the nexus was transparency.  Within the realm of health, a society can choose to be very closed, leading to rampant STD prevalence and incidence and cultures of distrust and adultery and secrecy, or it can choose to be very open, in which case it loses much of the meaning of intimate and long-lasting relationships and is prone to gossip (when those who are very open are criticized by those who aren’t as much so).  A third way is institutional and societal transparency, leading to public health initiatives (i.e. civic responsibility over personal privacy in order to increase general health).

Thinking in this way, here are some other massive existing problems I’ve always wondered about.  Most of them have their own inflection points that are seared into my head for one reason or another.  My spidey sense kicks in and asks, “Why did this person react so strongly to this topic?  Why is a topic very intensely studied EXCEPT for this certain area?”  What are the cultural taboos lurking underneath these large-scale societal issues?

Job Hiring and Human Resources

This one is near and dear to my heart right now, since I’m unemployed and looking for work.

Despite services like headhunters, monster.com, et al, the entire job hiring process is completely broken.  Here’s how it generally works.

A job listing is posted on the organization’s web site.  The organization receives maybe hundreds of resumes, cover letters, and all the other junk that recruiters ask for.  The recruiter chooses the most promising candidates for interviews and then after an interview, the recruiter and team picks the best person.  Sounds fine, right?

But what really happens is that some overworked manager at work needs to recruit someone, so he writes up this long listing with completely unrealistic job requirements, like “20 years experience in Swaziland and Indonesia, 15 years executive experience, for free summer internship”.  In fact, someone could probably get a lot of traffic with a blog that tracks the most audacious, ridiculous job listings on the market.

On top of this listing, what one needs to do is apply, and that turns into a whole game unto itself.  If you’re lucky, all you need to do is send your resume to an e-mail address.  The more onerous ones ask for a cover letter, which seems to me to be an exercise in redundancy, since your resume should be enough to warrant interest.  The worst hiring mechanisms are in larger organizations, which ask for short-answer or essay responses.  Or you might upload your resume (which is fine), but then the server software tries to parse your resume and then you have to fill in these laborious form fields so that your data fits in this organization’s database.  The worst system perhaps exists in Avue Digital Services, a contractor’s system used by a lot of government agencies.  You should really check this web site out.  It looks like it’s from 1998.  I applied for one job at USAID and I literally had to click on options about how extensive my experience with “formulating a plan and carrying it out” and THEN had to fill out a textbox fleshing out the details behind it.  And this was repeated for 10 other questions.

Keep in mind that if you want to take this process seriously, it will likely take you several hours to complete.  And also keep in mind that you’re not even likely to get any sort of response for all your work!

That is another peccadillo of mine:  people who don’t have the courtesy to respond, even if just to say “no”.  Obviously people are overworked and busy enough as it is, but how does one know whether to follow up or give up if they don’t even get a form letter denial?  This is professionally lazy.

I have a bunch of unemployed friends right now and they are brilliant.  But there’s no entry path into organizations.  A smart organization would put a lot of money into entry-level pipeline programs for training, because there’s few jobs where someone is actually going to come in and be fully-trained for their job.  (Chemonics International and the World Bank seem to have these sorts of programs — kudos to them.  Anyone else you’ve found?)

Thus you get these ridiculous requirements in job listings, posted by people who don’t really know what their organization needs, sent to people who have to send out more and more resumes just to get one organization that responds to them.  The whole system is burdened and, in short, completely broken.

All that said, smart people know that you don’t really get jobs by going on monster.com or through job listings.  The best jobs come through your weak ties and social networks.  But doesn’t this sidestep the great advantages the internet offers in terms of matching up interests and human capital?

It is 2009 and we still don’t have online standardization for job hunting.  LinkedIn has a wonderful system that is essentially an online resume with social networking.  But why doesn’t Reid Hoffman, if he’s so brilliant, push LinkedIn as a standard resume system?  Why do we have these bizarre artifacts like tailored resumes that have to be in Word format?  We do we have artifacts like a resume flood where only a few people are even notified that their resume was acknowledged?  Why isn’t there a system that tracks which places you’ve applied to, when you applied to them, and what the results were in an open system?

The answer is that it’s all taboo.  Companies don’t know what they really need in new hires.  People can’t share salary details because people don’t want to know that they might get fleeced, and companies prefer the information asymmetry.  Those on the job market aren’t quite sure what skills they need to get jobs because they know that in their jobs, the “skills” are often complete nonsense.  Opaqueness is the name of the game — don’t let anyone on to the fact that you have no clue what’s going on.

It really is a wonder that organizations are able to make money.  I dream of the day when I get to do hiring as part of my job as a founder — I would, in a heartbeat, volunteer my company to be part of a network of organizations that agree to use an open, transparent hiring system.

Altruism and Non-GDP Labor

I took a biology class in college which stood out in mind for its professor who was keenly interested in making sure we understood the most sweeping, important ideas within the field.  In particular, he spoke pointedly about the concept of altruism in nature, so much that I think he might have even devoted a whole lecture to it.  He spoke about whether there are examples of altruism in nature and whether that altruism was ultimately self-interest or if it was genuine.

The attention he gave to that topic signified its importance to me.  But having grown up in a fairly mercantilist Dallas, and in particular the ultra-competitive suburb of Plano, and then bearing witness to the high-flying dotcom boom and the era of Greenspan and Reagan and trickle-down economics, altruism has been a topic suspiciously ignored and avoided in much of the literature I’ve read.

Something has changed since the dotcom bubble collapsed.  The massive drop in costs for storage, bandwidth, and processing has made information dissemination and creation go exponential.  Freemium (offering most of your services for free while charging for premium features) is a viable business model, collaborative projects like open source Linux and Wikipedia are a normal part of our innovation ecosystem, and the “gift economy” is no longer fantasy.  Check out this article on the altruism in economics.

Greenspan infamously admitted there were flaws in his theory, and Reaganomics have gone dormant.  Now The Economist is worried about big government (its latest cover signals the magazine’s shift from averting financial collapse to anti-government economic conservatism, as if those are either/or states).  The neo-cons have gone dormant as well.

This is allowing for more integrative economic theories to be debated and explored — the outcome will be some mix of purely economic labor (i.e. going to work and earning a salary) and social capital wealth (fostering your strong and weak ties) and incorporating household labor (cleaning the house, taking care of family) into statistics about overall wealth.

You can see the taboo in this area in how economic growth used to be calculated:  gross domestic product per capita.  This is a crude measurement of overall GDP divided by population, ignorant of massive socio-economic divides or other measures of well-being.

But the Human Development Index has gained traction.  On top of GDP/capita, it also includes statistics on literacy and life expectancy.  This is a closer approximate to tracking a realistic, sustainable snapshot of human life.  In fact, one might even call it an attempt to measure happiness (in the past, happiness was just how much money you earned, according to economists).  Bhutan has taken a radical approach — it’s made happiness a national measurement.

“Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.”

Economic theory is the real story of the 20th century.  The advent of Marxism and Communism vs. Capitalism, the Keynesian economic school that led to Friedmanism and a collapse of financial institutions in the United States (1929 and eventually 2007).  Why are economists, who are given so much control over policy, unable to break the taboo of non-monetary labor?

For more, read Clive Hamilton’s “Growth Fetish”.  Some choice quotes:

“As Andre Gorz has observed, ‘Socialism may … be understood as the positive response to the disintegration of social bonds ensuing from the commodity and competitive relations characteristic of capitalism.’  Eudemonism too is motivated by an understanding of the corrosive effects of capitalism on social bonds, but it differs in two respects.  First, it attributes this erosion of social bonds not so much to the depredations of the capital-worker relationship but to the social disintegration associated with excessive consumption in the marketing society.  Second the problem of capitalism is not only the disintegration of social bonds but also the loss of self that characterises the marketing society.  We need to recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies, societies ‘in which the unity of work and life, of society and community, of the individual and the collective, of culture and politics, of economy and morality, is re-established; in which the functional requirements of the system coincide with the aims of everyone, and the meaning of each person’s life coincides with the meaning of History.”

“Becker defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments.  In other words, people marry in order to more efficiently produce ‘household commodities’, including ‘the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status’.  The marriage decision is therefore based on quantifiable costs and benefits.

“He defined love as ‘a non-marketable household commodity’, noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of ‘policing’ the marriage.  Policing is needed ‘in any partnership or corporation’ because it ‘reduces the probability that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium in the marriage market.”

Those organizations and companies that seek to promote the value of activities and social goods other than those goods and services produced and paid for will be the big winners in the next century.  Who is tackling these issues?  Read Kevin Kelly’s latest primer on the subject of the global collectivist society.

Human Capital and Social Capital

Facebook I believe is one of those companies.  While Facebook still has a tinge of triteness in the minds of many, I think what it is doing will help to define our coming networked information economy, to use Yochai Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks” term.

Facebook is building a standardized international system for maintaining our pre-existing social capital and expanding upon it.  Social capital is roughly measured by the number of your contacts, weak or strong (weak ties are acquaintances or co-workers while strong ties are your friends and family), and the level of interaction you have among them and your ability to bring your different nodes of interaction together.  Essentially this is what you are doing on Facebook when you’re having conversations with all your friends in one location (your wall).

Human capital focuses more on things like education level and health care and nutrition, the fundamental building blocks which allow us to achieve more parts of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (further discussion of Maslow suggest that you don’t need to have all the lower levels on the hierarchy of needs to reach self-actualization — you can have different combinations).

I bring up human and social capital because they are deeply awash in taboo.  People react violently to sharing their data online, because they are terrified of accountability and misuse and the idea that you can game human interaction.  Ask girls you know what they think about Neil Strauss’s “The Game”, a book that describes a community of men who figured out that if they wore attention-grabbing ornamentation to a club and said certain things to ladies at a bar, they could get those ladies to do just about anything they wanted while there, including “number-closing” or getting a girl to give you her number.

No one wants to think of human relationships as so base and simplistic, particularly when it comes to her OWN relationships.  Everyone wants to be complex.  But there are biological and social mechanisms that are intrinsic to how we interact.

The taboo that humans cannot be studied as though they are animals stops us from being able to understand ourselves, and thus we are exploited by reputation thieves, identity crooks, marketing projects, “players” and “hustlers”, et al.  We come up with imperfect systems like eHarmony to try to find us the perfect mate, and we use simplistic hiring systems to find jobs.

Good Governance and Strong Leadership

The international development discipline has gone through many fads in its attempts to systematically reduce worldwide poverty:  economic growth, education initiatives, public health, increased nutrition, food aid, import substitution, infrastructure projects, anti-corruption, institution-building, etc.

Naturally, flooding anything with money will lead to existing power structures siphoning that money away or just plain mismanaging it so that the end result looks nothing like how the project was intended on paper.  What you end up getting are things like warlordism (Somalia), clientelism (South America and much of the world), and simple corruption (everywhere).  Thus, you have people like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, development economists, who are saying that we’re wasting our money with “aid”, if it’s not accompanied with the proper incentives for all parties, and if it’s not held accountable to the recipients of aid (i.e. poor people and the citizenry) but only to the government.

I’ve just started a very interesting book my brother chose about Tokyo’s fish market, Tsukiji.  In it, the author, Theodore Bestor, has a disclaimer up front that anthropologists should stop being afraid to address power structures and economics — he notes that anthropologists abhor discussion of economics and economic systems, a sentiment I’ve noticed when I listen to my family talk about the two topics.  There is notable distaste between anthropologists and economists, even though I’ve always found both subjects fascinating and inextricably linked.

I studied international development as my concentration in my master’s program and very rarely does any of the literature talk about the importance of strong leaders except in a negative context, primarily for “big men” in Africa who ruled for multiple decades and ran their countries into the ground.  But if we’ve established that aid money is subject to graft, infrastructure projects are steered towards clients of the government, literacy is kept down to stop the citizenry from fighting back, and virtually all development initiatives can be co-opted, doesn’t that leave good governance as an important (but not the only) step?

And that’s where development stands now:  encourage strong institutions and good governance and a country’s government will start performing better for its citizens. But still, the issue of having a strong leader to push these programs through, even knocking down incumbent interests who will resist, is ignored.  It is a taboo topic.

Just look at what the CIA used to be obsessed with:  regime change and propping up friendly rulers.  The most taboo and secret people of all, our clandestine services, used to subvert governments worldwide.  They did it either to keep parts of the world so fractured that they couldn’t challenge the US or to bring in someone who would represent American interests.  And in that context, it worked pretty well.  We didn’t care if that country’s people were disenfranchised and thrown into poverty.  We didn’t care about internal civil societies or human capital.  We just wanted rulers who would do what we wanted them to.  End of story.  The CIA knew what was up.

It doesn’t seem as though there are many ways to birth, train, and promote a great leader like Gandhi or Churchill or Lincoln out of a lab or vacuum.  So how can development practitioners bring this about?  They can’t, really…at least, not that popular literature and research has uncovered.  Have you found anything?  The best thing seems to be leaving countries alone, forcing them to deal with their national identity and to have a natural process of finding leadership.  But this is not something we can spend millions of dollars on.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to be the best role model country on our own, to exemplify values we hope others have.  This solution does not provide practitioners with jobs.  So perhaps that is why there is a taboo about strong leadership in international development literature.

Personalities & Social Lubricants

One subject that has come to dominate my thoughts more and more over time is the importance of individual personalities.  This is somewhat linked to the strong leadership gap described in the last section, but specifically I am obsessed with the development of very interesting people.  I don’t care as much about how they got to where they are, but am most interested in the conditions and environment those people grew up in, and what decisions those people were faced with at critical junctions in their lives.  This is why I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” so much; he finds that successful people did not appear at a vacuum.  In many cases they were blessed with extraordinary opportunities that seemed mundane at the time but that gave them the time to become experts in their fields.

Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, etc.  These are remarkable human beings but they do not just settle on one thing in their lives.  They are pushing forward on new initiatives.  They’re not one-trick ponies.  They have stunning ability to motivate others to go further.  It’s these personalities that I don’t think get enough credit except for the fact that they are filthy rich.

It’s no secret that personalities sell — I appreciate the tabloids on that basis alone.  But the celebrity world of movies and music seems to be the only real vector for pushing personalities into the forefront.  It is not as though many other professions can hope for that level of fame, no matter how eccentric they are or how interesting their award-winning work is.

As far as I know, there’s really only one organization that seeks to build a network of particularly entrepreneurial individuals:  the Ashoka Foundation.  My impression is that the foundation takes entrepreneurial winners from different countries and then encourages them to become mentors for the next generation of social entrepreneurs from their country.  This talent-centric approach is at odds with venture capital and the public markets, which only care about the ideas, and more recently, only pay attention to entrepreneurship in business models.

I would much rather hire or invest in someone whose mind is abuzz with new ideas than fund one idea and hope that it pans out.  This is why talented individuals are so important.  Hire them, put them in a room together, and they will come up with absolutely brilliant stuff.  Why is this so hard?

Some might blame it on shareholders wanting to see short-term results.  Others see it as protecting an entrepreneur’s future revenue streams.  Both lame explanations.

What is a Taboo-Destroying Entrepreneur?

Part of being a social entrepreneur is helping solve societal problems.  But they are still problems for a reason.  It’s not because no one’s had a brilliant-enough idea.  It’s because of cultural taboos.  It’s because no one’s chosen to shatter a taboo into a bunch of different pieces and force people to see the truth underneath that taboo barrier.  So you could equate social entrepreneurship to shining a spotlight on a culture’s most embarrassing traits, the dirty little secrets that no one talks about regarding sex, drugs, black markets, relationships, bribery, and so on.   Social entrepreneurship is about destroying taboos.

Some more taboos.  Assuming we can just stop everyone from doing drugs or having sex has resulted in a failed abstinence program worldwide and a massively-defunct war on drugs that has turned Mexico and the pipeline countries of the drug trade into a bunch of city-states fighting cartels.  Nintendo crushed its competition by releasing a console, the Wii, that appealed to a bigger pie of people than just hardcore gamers.  What are we doing about our prison system, the costliest and most populace in the world?  Prisoners still manage to get cellphones and all the gear they need into jail, and terrorism and hardening of criminal behavior seem to actually thrive within the prison system that is supposed to rehabilitate them.  Prisoners easily even get drugs in prison!  Michael Lewis’s Moneyball showed how one statistician fought the commonly-held assumptions of how to recruit talent (i.e. hunch) and decided to let statistical analysis do the talking instead, resulting in a revaluation of which players should be signed and, although not yet, eventually a revaluation of salaries versus performance.  There are just so many examples of individuals having to fight the incumbent system to install what everyone should want:  something that more closely models reality.

Is the American Innovation Ecosystem Broken?

I am about done reading Judy Estrin’s “Closing the Innovation Gap:  Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy”, one of the best books talking about innovation out there.  One of the most poignant things Estrin brings up in the book is asking whether the US is not longer innovating as it should.  Estrin argues that even while dotcoms were all the rage and the web 2.0 community lifted off in the first decade of the 21st century, the underlying building blocks of the innovation ecosystem had gone stagnant.  Estrin doesn’t pull any punches for Bush the Younger for not improving education and immigration incentives, not funding the apolitical science foundations enough, etc.  She is worried that while things have the appearance of being good right now, the US is shutting down innovation-wise and countries like China are investing massive amounts of money into general research such that immigrants are no longer as likely to come to the US and stay afterwards to work.  What happens when we become exporters of information workers and not importers?

I’m not high-level enough to know how today’s situation compares to the past, since I’ve only spent limited time with master’s and PhD types and administrators at universities.  Georgetown has a pretty small endowment and even smaller for my program.  I’d like to think I’d be able to rally the alumni to bring money and attention back to MSFS later, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

I’ve read a bit about Harvard’s looming budget crisis for research and Estrin talks a bit about how PhD research is in danger of becoming a beauty pageant tailored towards whichever areas receive the most money and not where people are most interested in researching.

I’ve also had some trouble getting interest in my topic of interest, identity and reputation in the digital world, despite its being the next step for the online networked information economy.  There haven’t been any big IPOs lately and start-ups seem to be mostly dead-on-arrival ideas.  It’s a far cry from what was going on in 1995 online.  All the interesting stuff is lurking under the surface right now — and mainly in collaborative open source projects.  In other words, the internet’s development is back to underground communities because the public and private funding is not there.

Final Words

I just want to close with the sentiment, that despite my attempts to quantify human behavior, I do come from an anthropologist family and so therefore I do passionately enjoy reading about the peculiarities and eccentricities of different cultures and would never want those things to disappear.  What I do think, though, is that many people take advantage of other peoples’ lack of access to information and then they exploit that.  Such exploitation of power and information is substantially different from cultural and social community-level identities.  To make our societies more transparent, I argue, is to embrace our differences fully and bring them out so we can enjoy them.  Without taboos.

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