Category Archives: Economics

Go Where They Ain’t, Don’t Follow Your Passion

Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs says that, after working with people who have the dirtiest jobs in America, they’re happier than most people.  And they’re getting rich by going where everyone else wasn’t; they’re not following their passion.

He also says our society is at war with work.

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Filed under America, Economics

Wall Street & Trading

I just finished Karen Ho’s “Liquidated:  An Ethnography of Wall Street”.  It tied together various experiences I had daytrading from 1998-2002 and 2006-2007 and the recruitment sessions that big banks and consulting companies would have for Georgetown Master’s students.

Some things the book helped to confirm:

1) Time differentials.  Wall Street works very often 100-120 hours a week.  This doubles the minimum hours worked by corporate America.  So that affects time scales; Wall Street is constantly trying to create profit through liquidity and exchange and deals.  Corporate America works on a much slower timeline, to create products or services.  It is a more human scale.  Wall Street works not for salary but for bonuses, which are created through quantity and size of deals.  It doesn’t get compensated for long-term corporate success.

2) A large number of students from Ivy League Plus schools chase the money into finance.  They get paid a fortune if they can cut it.  But the net loss is to society — these brilliant minds do not seem to be employing their money back into philanthropic pursuits, ambitious programs, or bettering the world.  The money is put into unsustainable, wasteful lifestyles which the east coast thrives off of. (read the Washington Post’s article about Rhodes Scholars herding into finance)

3) CEOs and executives care about “shareholder value” and the stock price, but these things are no longer linked to the internal health or long-term success of a firm.  It is corporate raiding.

4) Wall Street is transferring wealth away from those who create it, by facilitating “deals” which leak commissions to the banks.  How many deals have you seen executed by public companies lately which actually make any sense?  Remember AOL and Time Warner?  That was the pinnacle.

5) Wall Street wasn’t destroyed in 2007 — it did what it always does; quickly it reinvented itself, laid people off, and adapted.  No other sector is able to reconstitute itself so quickly. It does this by pursuing talent at any cost.  It recruits the best, unattached minds in the nation from the top universities, and promotes a cult of personality of “smartness” — you will be among the best people if you go to work on Wall Street.  I saw the degree to which Wall Street pursues talent; one of my classmates at Georgetown had a standing job offer even throughout the 2007-2008 financial crisis!

6) Downsizing is good to Wall Street. If a company lays off workers, this means the company is reducing its overhead.  Wall Street does not care about Main Street.  It pulls from the elite, and the job does not care about how Main Street is doing or whether workers are suffering.  Wall Street enjoys higher unemployment as long as productivity increases and costs are reduced — and as Professor Ho points out, this job insecurity mirrors what Wall Street is constantly under the threat of.

7) Even within Wall Street, there is segregation. Cost center people, like support staff, take different elevators within buildings than the people who make the profits for the banks.

8) Investing in the stock market is a sucker’s game.  Owning stock in a company is not worthwhile, because common stock is so diluted that it doesn’t constitute any sort of ownership in the firm (and Professor Ho points out it never did).  The stock market is its own entity and should be treated as a quick trading vehicle:  volatility and liquidity are the only things that matter.

9) Neo-liberal economic theory permeates Wall Street, but it is unsustainable for most people.  While Wall Street is made up of the best and brightest who easily transition from job to job, Main Street would not be able to withstand this “creative destruction”.

This is a sobering book, but also a fascinating move for anthropology:  I think most people associate anthropology with studying small, backwards, tribal groups.  But this studies incredibly modern, adaptive Wall Street tribes.

As a citizen I’m deeply concerned about how easily the finance sector controls what happens in this country, and even President Obama has succumbed to a lot of the banks’ demands.  What’s worst is that finance is intellectual magic to create new ideas and derivatives and “products” while the actual economic base of development in the US has taken a back seat.  How long can that last, with our greatest minds essentially creating nothing but instability, instead of new technologies, theories, and breakthroughs?

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Filed under Books, Economics, Education, Stock Market

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

State of the Nation After 9/11/09

Oh man, where to begin.  I think I’ve been a little frustrated lately because I haven’t written in a while.  So let’s get it out there so I can move on.

National Tea Party, 9/12

This last Saturday was the National Tea Party Day in DC.  The Tea Party is a rallying cry for essentially Jeffersonian anti-big government, anti-taxation, anti-socialism, anti-public option Americans.

I live in DC.  I went to meet some friends at the St. Regis hotel for drinks, since one of our friends was attending a wedding reception there for her friends.  I think there were three weddings in the area because there were people dressed to the nines everywhere.  But interspersed among them along 15th Street, since the St. Regis is due north from the White House, were tons of Tea Party out-of-towners.  They wore the typical uniform of the red-blooded American patriot from the midwest and south.  So imagine little black wedding party dresses and heels and tuxedos mixed in with American flag t-shirts, Don’t Tread on Me flags, large homemade posters decrying socialism, and 13 Colonies flags.  It was quite a scene.  Read this post for an idea of the iconography and symbology they use.  Heavily Confederate, heavily Jeffersonian.

Inside the Tea Party

I am being generous in my description of the Tea Party because here’s what it really is:  despite claims to the contrary (they say they are inclusionist) by those orchestrating it (Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, FOXNews, Glenn Beck), the Tea Party is almost exclusively old, white, fat Americans from the midwest and south (watch the videos, about the only minorities you see are the police, ironically…DC at least in the workplace is diverse, although not so much socially).

This panoply lends itself to legitimate elements of conservatism, as well as attracting isolationism, racism, and antiquated rhetoric, because they want to be left alone by the government, prefer Jeffersonian federalism, and couch their political rhetoric loosely around racist anti-Obama, obstructionist anti-Keynesianism, and anti-national anti-public school/health care/anything that takes money out of their pockets.  As with any movement, the fringe elements make up a lot of the headlines.

medicare

The thing is, their political ideology has a strong historical foundation.  The American debate has long focused around Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians arguing about central government vs. limited government, diplomacy vs. isolationism.  The Tea Party certainly has legitimate doubts about the encroaching danger of a growing government, the problem of being taxed too heavily by hungry and wasteful federal programs, the desire to own guns vs. the fear of the government seeking to seize them, etc.  They are the accountants of American domestic and foreign policy.  Their first instinct is always to say no.  And we need this.

Today’s American Policy Schools of Thought

One significant limitation with solely following this school, though, is that the world has become far more complex than these classic debates (fought out when America was not yet the superpower), and so has American history.  Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence:  American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, adds two more schools of American thought, the Wilsonians and the Jacksonians.

The Wilsonians can be best described as the non-government organizations in Washington, DC who lobby for peace in Darfur or de-mining Cambodia or human rights in China.  They believe that the American freedoms we enjoy within successful democracy and human equality can be exported; we should spread those ideals abroad.

The Jacksonians are the belligerent, more realpolitik war-fighters who believe strongly in national security, honor, and individualism at any cost.

Naturally you can see that the Tea Party people take a lot from the Jacksonian movement, with their profession of faith for the 2nd Amendment, the vivid display of patriotism and love for the red, white, and blue, and resisting the “public option” of health care in favor of individualized, privatized health care.

But this is not what they choose to make the basis of their movement.  They know that preaching fiscal conservatism is where they will be the most inclusive to the conservative base, judging by their organizing web sites.  What’s interesting about that site in particular is that #tcot is a hashtag meaning Top Conservatives On Twitter (the libertarians’ is #tlot, the liberals are split up) and the site’s style is a direct knock-off of Drudge Report‘s site design (which I’ve since deleted as a bookmark despite it being a great place for a links, because it’s just become too much of a political EFP pushing anger at certain topics).  The Tea Party Patriots web site uses film footage from FreedomWorks, the lobbying group that (and I’m trying not to be too judgmental here, but the FW logo is on everything) is pushing the Tea Parties.

I would describe myself as mostly a Hamiltonian (having had a Keynesian economics grad school education, admittedly), but I also draw heavily from the other schools:  Jeffersonian appropriateness of levels of government and high requirements to declare war, Jacksonian desire for ferocity when war must be conducted and desire for militaristic honor in combat and argument, and Wilsonian dreams of universal human rights.  I share libertarian suspicion of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve (and any organization that is not transparent and accountable to the people).   I support companies in their mandates to earn as much money as possible, but I also think they must do it within the commonly-accepted range of American regulatory institutions protecting the public interest vigorously.  I grew up in a Jeffersonian, libertarian Texas as a kid, fought in a post-9/11 Jacksonian US Army, studied at the afore-mentioned Keynesian economics institution, concentrated in a Wilsonian international development concentration.

What’s Wrong With the Tea Party?

With all that said, I feel as though I am qualified as a well-rounded American to question the motivations behind the Tea Party movement.

First of all, it is exclusionary, in that it is made up of old white people who are afraid of having things taken away from them by illegals, blacks, government, etc.  As this recession becomes more severe, you can expect hatred to increase.  In the past, when the economy did worse, groups like the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed higher enrollment.

I also feel it is out of touch, even down to its name:  the Boston Tea Party desired representation for British taxation, in essence declaring that paying taxes was a way of expressing voting preferences.  The Tea Party is anti-federal government, and desires to pay much less taxes (if not any), and thus, losing voting rights.  This is a horrible distortion of the original meaning of a pretty significant declaration in favor of democracy by our forefathers.

For the Tea Party people to travel to a district (DC) that has no representation, down to the license plate (“taxation without representation”, to protest being over-taxed, seems ignorant.

The Tea Party also called itself teabaggers at first, until liberals informed them that teabagging was a lewd sexual act.  Another massive blunder.

The Tea Party also will not to admit to this, but it consorts with racists.  All-white crowds who bring firearms and yell down opponents?  This is intimidation in its rawest and most public form:  if you’re an illegal, a Latino, a black, a gay, then you better not attend.  Racists rarely come out and say they hate other people (at least the white supremacists are honest about it), but it is intellectually dishonest for the Tea Party to say it is not racist while it does not censor its own members for being racist.

Again I must emphasize that the Tea Party expresses legitimate fears, once you get past the overt lobbying effort at the top of it. It is not a baseless, stupid movement.  DC is a liberal town and most of the residents were unhappy to see the Tea Party show up in town.  But as Mead writes,

“Divided We Coast.  By the closing months of the Clinton administration, American foreign policy could have been compared to a car.  In the front seat the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools agreed that the car should go as fast as possible, but they disagreed on the best course.  Their feet were together in pressing on the accelerator, but they wrestled for the wheel.  Jeffersonians, meanwhile, sat in the back and exercised the classic privilege of the backseat driver:  They complained loudly and irritatingly that the car was going too fast, and that it was taking wrong turns.

“The three schools were so busy fighting that at first none of them noticed that the engine — the Jacksonians, whose support gave the car its real power and drive — were no longer responding.  Hamiltonians and Wilsonians pumped the accelerator, but to no avail:  The car continued to slow.”

For all the ill-informed bluster about death panels, socialism, big government, Nazi/Communist Obama Brownshirt Girl Scout Nazi Youths, the Tea Party engine is genuinely scared.  For Obama and liberals to ignore these peoples’ fears and desires would be political stupidity and lack of empathy for fellow Americans.

In fact, the progressives, underneath it all, share a lot in common with these protestors.  Both are deeply sensitive to the powerlessness they feel against elites and big government/business.  They both feel as though the system has been stacked to pay off the elites and not the common man.  Both fear a blow to the middle class.  Both seek reform.  If anything, both now benefit from the increasingly wise understanding of how money, politics, and influence can affect different organizations and legislation and externalities.  We live in the first days of rapidly increased transparency (but not yet accountability, except through smear campaigns).

CNBC is Involved

CNBC has strangely had some connections to today’s debate.  It perhaps began with Jim Cramer’s famous blow-up about how bad the crisis was (which Bush and Obama used stimulus money to prevent, successfully, I might add).

It continued with Rick Santelli, a trader and commentator on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, made a massively influential rant on CNBC about subsidizing losers using government money, to the cheers of fellow financial class traders.

Santelli’s video was a rallying cry for the Tea Party before CNBC intervened and tried to have his name removed.

Another CNBC alumn, Dylan Ratigan, left for MSNBC and recently wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post about how the financial industry owns us and we haven’t done anything about it, because we are hostages.

So CNBC is intertwined in all these debates as well.  Those who make the most money in this country, the financial executives and the industries that support them, have a vested interest in stoking up capitalist-socialist fears and monopolistic/subsidized conditions for their profit.

As an aside, I was watching FOXNews and Tucker Carlson (the kid who got beat up in school and is taking it out on us now, and also got beat up verbally by Jon Stewart on TV and was then trashed by CNN) did a smear piece on “The Trouble with Textbooks”, where he’s arguing that progressives and intellectuals are secretly inserting their messages into your kids’ textbooks.  Better take your kids out of public schools.  Let me guess.  Are they going to Christian madrassas?

A Bad Summer

Obama clearly lost control of the message this brutal, brutal political summer during the Congressional lull.  Obviously he fouled up the entire health care debate, allowing FOXNews to dictate the terms of the debate through town hall ridiculousness.  He was not achieving the immediate success in jobs numbers he hoped from the stimulus.  He has not pleased his progressive base by advancing on any civil rights fronts (the easiest of which would be to allow gays in the military).

He needs to engage the Tea Party people and address their demands.  At the same time he should play the base off (Mead’s “engine”, made up of Jacksonians at their core) against the lobbyists and corporatists who are playing them like puppets.  These lobbyists are scaring up the disconnected gap of the midwest and southern states who are afraid of losing more and more during a brutal recession and transformation of the American economy to that of an information economy.  It is scary that lobbyists have convinced whites from the middle of the country to vote in favor of cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, disallowing better health care for those who can’t afford it, and in general voting to allow the most elite in this country to have less responsibility and compliance to the rest of us.

THAT is pretty disgusting.  But Obama could exploit this divide.  Keep in mind that it was Bush, an idealist but running as a conservative, who violated fiscal conservative policies.  It was he who exploded the national budget deficit and negative trade balance.  Just imagine if Obama cut back the anti-recession stimulus measures (which, I might add, he HAD to do, and which DID prevent a financial sector collapse) and ran as a fiscally responsible politician?  He would win away a lot of scared, hurting midwestern whites.

Racism Grows With Recession

I’ll be honest.  I’m getting a little worried.  It is true that Latinos will become a major power in this country, through pure demographics.  This will continue to exacerbate the divide between the cosmopolitan coastal cluster cities and the rural traditionalist interior.  The radical whites that the Republican party has been forced to rely on (i.e. Palin) will continue to be disconnected and feel that the rest of the country does not pay its fair share of respect and resources to them.

Look at this one video of a guy who definitely does not want the US government, law enforcement, or anyone to go near him:

Now compare it to a jihadist video by Azzam al-Amriki, who, American interpretation aside, actually preaches on the face of it a message to the west to leave his people alone, get out of Muslim countries, and stop imposing foreign values on his people.  He is anti-globalization and anti-financial system.

In both cases, they are in a private room, secluded, wearing the uniform of their people (cowboy hat vs. kuffia), listening to their music (country vs. jihadist), finger-waving that they will shoot to kill anyone who attempts to infiltrate.  I hate to compare the two, but the similarities are striking; they both complain of an attack on their strong sense of identity, and they are both reacting against what they see are great injustices against their people.

Their concerns should not be ignored.  They should be empathized with and understood properly.  We should get a good sense of this loss of trust.  When we ridicule Iran for rattling its sabre against Israel, we should remember that it is because Ahmadi-Nejad gets votes for being anti-Israeli.  The Republicans get votes for being pro-white, anti-federal government.  When we wonder why the Taliban has such a stranglehold in tribal AfPak, we should look at our own country and see the people who don’t want to live in the cities or be cosmopolitan or be around people who aren’t Christian, hetero, and white.

While fortunately our Americans are not militant, it is not a far cry to see that they one day may be.

A Call for Unity

Which is why it’s so crucial that we unite our nation.  Through manifest destiny and the belief we are a city upon a hill with special providence, we’ve been provided one way or another with a secure geostrategic position nestled between Canada, Mexico, and two oceans.  We are secure, if we are smart about what our vulnerabilities are and work to reduce them.  We have the largest economy in the world and we are the largest country that has the most unified populace.  We have naval, air, and space superiority over all the other nations.  The Russians are weak, the Europeans are wrestling with forming a union, and China is running into significant demographic and political instability risks.

I believe in taking bold steps necessary to maintain American superiority, but I also believe that we must push a more equitable international system, and I also believe that the only risk we have is if we break apart as a nation.  It was quite right of FDR to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itselfOur position in the world is assured as long as we don’t screw it up.

“And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.”

We face two domestic risks:  that the white base will turn itself against the USA and break apart from the coastal liberal city clusters that provide most of the economic clout (e.g. SF, LA, DC, NYC, Miami).  While they will manage to divide both coasts (which would give the breakaway states the ability to hamper coordination between the coasts), this would be even more destructive to national unity.

At the same time, the southwest continues to build dual loyalties:  those to the union and those to Latino heritage.  I do think that the southwestern states are strong contributors to the union, but if things disintegrated, the cultural, racial, and religious affinities might force them to create a sub-state, much like Kurds in Iraq.  The failed War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a weakened state amongst drug cartel lions whose resources eclipse those of the nations in which they exist.  This brings violence and drugs to our borders, which we can’t hope to guard effectively.  Mexico is a primary national security concern, as a result.  But we do very little to aid Mexico’s stability with our drug policies.

A Russian professor recently got a lot of press for proposing this break-up.  The details are ridiculous (even indicating lack of ground truth knowledge of the USA) but in my mind, it’s the US’s only real risk.

Texas, where I’m from, of course flirts periodically with the idea of seceding from the Union.  Its crazy governor, Rick Perry, is now joining up with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, asserting 10th Amendment state sovereignty rights.  This is fine, of course, but legal subtleties barely cover up a seething desire for separation from the Union.

The Tea Party was being sponsored partially by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.  As this essay rightly states, the 9/12 Project is an attempt to commandeer a national event, 9/11, and commemorate it “their” own way.  It separates my 9/11 from your 9/11.  Having joined the Army after 9/11 to go fight terrorists, part of me wonders how many of the 9/12 Project answered their country’s call.  Part of me is offended that they try to co-opt the military as being part of them, when I wore the American flag every day for 5 years too.

Losing national unity is our greatest risk in the long-term.  Our success is so assured that it is almost as if we are doomed to ruin it if we are not vigilant about promoting equality and unity.

On PBS I was watching a documentary on some of the civil war leaders and presidents who tiptoed the line between these schools, in the midst of vicious civil war, America finding its place in the world, and ultimately Lincoln unleashing his generals to fight the Confederacy.  It of course was the bloodiest war the US has ever fought (most civil wars end up being that way).  Now, when political climates have turned poisonous, all these ancient resentments have re-surfaced.  Just like what we might see in Lebanon, or Sudan, or Russia, or China.

There are common threads among pissed off progressives, pissed off libertarians, and pissed off conservatives:  fiscal discipline, getting rid of corruption, re-evaluating our national interest based on risk-reward.  There is common ground that could form consensus, if used correctly.

The Butt of International Jokes

But what are we going to do about this?

What are we going to do?  We are fighting amongst ourselves, ridiculing each other, taking the high road while denigrating and minimizing the strength of our opponents.  Meanwhile, we are losing our competitiveness.  We are not educating our children sufficiently to compete in an increasingly global economy.  While we fight with each other, Chinese kids are working their asses off.  Indian kids are working their asses off.  It’s the same worldwide.  People are learning that they have to compete.  Other countries are laughing at us in disbelief over our fear of socialized health care systems and our inability to deal with border violence, health care, government spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

Meanwhile, we have strong elements in our country seeking just to preserve what they have.  All these lost jobs in the US will never return.  We have to keep educating ourselves so that we can fill the newly-created jobs.  It will never be the past again, in terms of comfortable blue-collar jobs.  It certainly won’t be that way if we radically privatize our country (no social safety nets, no government benefits for workers or citizens).

Jefferson, in his own inaugural address:

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

Obviously Americans in Jeffersonian days still battled with the same balance between majority and minority, the Constitution and interpretation.  But are we being played off each other?

In short, and I have said this before, we have a battle between elites, who are seeking to preserve monopoly status and government preference, and citizens who realize that the only way to make it in today’s America is to get rich or die tryin’.  If you don’t get rich, you can’t feed your family.  You can’t pay for health care.  You can’t take any vacation.  You can’t live in a safe neighborhood.  It becomes a Hobbesian world where everyone is out to protect just their own families and maybe even their tribes.  Large corporations, seeking protection under freedom of speech as “individual” entities, throw money at issues affecting them so they can influence policy, while at the same time using Milton Friedmanomics and Reagonomics to deny unions, public NGOs, and government oversight, the only institutions that can match corporate lobbies in influence, purpose, and money.

The American Dream becomes not one of inclusion, where we take in your poor, your huddled masses, promising them a fair start and a chance to get rich.  The American Dream becomes “the greatest show on Earth” (thanks Bill Moyers) where you come to peddle your wares, make your money, and get out of the disgusting, violent market as soon as you can, to go live comfortably in a gated community where you’re safe from the violence and randomness that exists outside.

Choices

We as a country are going to have to make choices.  And they are not really choices at all.  Either we divide, and fall, or we unite, and fulfill what we consider our destiny.

We have to decide that we are true capitalists, who see firms as maximizing profit entities but working within the boundaries of a government that exists to protect the public interest and good.

We have to decide that yes, we are individuals who deserve our own rights, but those rights extend not only to us, but to those who are different than us, poorer than us, richer than us, from different countries, are here illegally, to every human on the planet.  The liberals have to clean up their house, and the conservatives have to stave off death.

We have to remove obstacles towards implementing better project design and implementation.  I don’t know how that will come about, except by the blunt force of inescapable technological advancement.

Mostly we have to decide that we’re going to do this together.   With that, I think I should close with MLK Jr.’s last speech before being assassinated:

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Filed under Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, Policy, Politics, Security, Stock Market

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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Health Care Ennui

Just a quick note on this; been busy settling in to my new place so I have a lot to say but not much time.

The health care proposal is grinding and painful to watch.  What’s worst about all of it is I think everyone knows that the system will still suck no matter what happens.  Such ennui is what I would blame for Obama’s polls dropping.  Of course the Republicans finally found a topic to nail away on him for.  That’s a pretty risky strategy on their part, but it has consolidated them a bit.

What I really want to say is that it seems ridiculous that we can’t even CONSIDER that health care in other countries might work better than our system.  Frontline did a great story on looking at health care systems around the world to see what they did, including Taiwan, which started from scratch, taking the best from different systems.

What’s also ridiculous is that the Republicans fight tooth and nail against universal health care, even though the military operates under that system for not only servicemembers but also for their families.  Yes, that most red-blooded system in America, the US military, uses SOCIALIZED HEALTH CARE paid by tax-payers!

Make sure you read/watch Bill Kristol telling Jon Stewart that military servicemembers deserve better care than American citizens.  Kristol, of course, has never served.

I miss the military medical care cushion.  So when my senior sergeants’ wives got pregnant, the Army paid for ALL of the costs associated with the pregnancy and delivery.  When my friends got sick or hurt, the Army took care of them.  Sure, some of the diagnoses and surgery were horrible, but the preventative care and defraying the costs that are associated with the medical system were superb.

It was wonderful to transfer to a new assignment on a new base, or deploy to Iraq, and NEVER HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT HEALTH CARE.  It was a centralized system (although not yet on an online database that you have control over, like what Google Health is trying to do) and you’d always be taken care of.

The best part?  Far less stress on everyone’s part, and the system wasn’t trying to make money off you.  Not wholly, but partially, the system also had proper economic incentives to make you healthier faster instead of trying to rape your pocketbook.

I’ve read that China used to have proper incentives:  if your health failed to improve, your doctor wouldn’t get paid.  How did this end up working out, I wonder?

I would like to see health care examined as a guarantee under citizenship.  I would hope that participating part of one’s identity and time to serve the government or military would confer upon that person the ability to receive a standard of health care so that he may be productive back to American society.  But right now, under a poorly regulated private insurer system, insurance dominates by reducing people to normalized baselines where abnormalities are punished (read NYTimes’ article on defining “health”):

“And then there is a larger question. How does “absence of abnormality” affect our perception of health? This construct is both too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow because there is more to being healthy than striving to avoid death and disease. Health is more than a physical state of being; it’s also a state of mind.

“And it’s too broad because all of us harbor abnormalities. The construct drives the system to look for things to be wrong — a search that will be successful in most of us. We then feel more vulnerable. This induced vulnerability undermines the very sense of well-being and resilience that in many ways defines health itself. Viewing health as the absence of abnormality thus conflicts with the desire for a healthier society.

“Furthermore, the strategy has created a host of other problems: doctors who are overwhelmed by the number of ailments their patients allegedly have (and who are often distracted from the most important ones); doctors in training who are increasingly confused about who is really sick and who is not; lawyers who increasingly have a field day with the charge of “failure to diagnose”; patients who get too much treatment or lose health insurance because they been given a new diagnosis; and a frazzled, fearful public adrift in a culture of disease. Oh, and did I mention that it has been a disaster for health-care costs?”

Paul Krugman explains it right:

“The key thing you need to know about health care is that it depends crucially on insurance. You don’t know when or whether you’ll need treatment — but if you do, treatment can be extremely expensive, well beyond what most people can pay out of pocket. Triple coronary bypasses, not routine doctor’s visits, are where the real money is, so insurance is essential.

“Yet private markets for health insurance, left to their own devices, work very badly: insurers deny as many claims as possible, and they also try to avoid covering people who are likely to need care. Horror stories are legion: the insurance company that refused to pay for urgently needed cancer surgery because of questions about the patient’s acne treatment; the healthy young woman denied coverage because she briefly saw a psychologist after breaking up with her boyfriend.”

Until free market ideologues understand that productivity is a long-term affair and not just grinding more hours/day out of each employee for fewer wages, the resolution of the health care system in America will never take place.  Wellness, preventative care, and incentivizing health care providers and insurers to make sure people actually are HEALTHY…those are the goals we’ll end up building our system for.

One last note:  what if there were a private market of new incentive metrics?  Or maybe this could even be a joint program with the doctors’ associations and NIH.  What if we could come up with new happiness indices and measures of lifestyle health (how many times one exercises, how much one walks per day) that doesn’t penalize you in the context of what risk you pose to an insurer?  We have virtually no lifestyle metrics that aren’t being kept from us and which aren’t being used to hurt our viability for insurance or recruitment.  We need our own tools to measure our lives and form our own metrics of what we consider important to ourselves.

Some ways:  Nike+, FitBit, Galapag.us.

Thoughts?  I’ve about given up on the US seriously reforming health care.  It’s just not going to happen politically (we can’t even allow gays to openly serve in the military yet) unless a strong executive strong-arms it through — and that may not necessarily be a good thing.

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Filed under Economics, Government, Health, Military, Policy

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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