Category Archives: Globalization

UAVs, Navy, Satellites, Battle Stars

This post, which I want to keep pretty short, feeds off my post on re-orienting national security priorities.

I read a fascinating paper provocatively entitled “How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015” (PDF), by James Kraska.

It takes a look at what is happening now as the US Navy flounders and the Chinese Navy quickly ramps up, and then suggests what might happen if China decided to sink the USS George Washington in 2015.

What fascinates me about this is that US Navy dominance is sort of seen as a given these days, something not worth worrying about, but naval supremacy has always been a significant factor behind any superpower’s reign of world affairs.  The US gladly took over the mantle of naval superiority and its positive externalities for world security after the United Kingdom found it in their best interest to ally with the US.  The Royal Navy’s battleship-style fleet did not transition well into the age of submarines and aircraft carriers.  The loss of the Suez Canal was a significant barrier, as well.

So the US took over after World War 2 and has since controlled the oceans.  This has enabled it to push an era of free trade and open water travel that has made it cheaper to ship resources than even to fly them, so much that the cost is almost negligent.  In terms of protecting capitalism, having the US superpower in control of the oceans has been incredibly successful.

Now the US focuses more on satellite/overhead imagery, and more recently, on asymmetric warfare.  Which has left several gaps in the American strategic security worldview.

The paper suggests that China could destroy a US carrier, which would have a psychological effect on Americans perhaps bigger than a physical effect, although with a Chinese contractor shutting down the Suez for “repairs” and China throwing up other roadblocks, this could delay the US in appropriately responding its massive, yet diffused fleet into the Pacific.  Control of the Pacific would shift as China’s neighbors, by sheer proximity, would be reluctant to move to counter China’s naval aggression.  What would the US be able to do?

It’s a fascinating paper although obviously it only looks at an American military perspective and not all the other factors:  economic, cultural, etc.

But it also makes me wonder why the US is so focused on a small group of jihadists when there are bigger fish to fry for continued American dominance.

1) It is in the US interest to ensure continued and unfettered control of the oceans, to ensure open trade, safe shipping lines, and access to necessary strategic hold-points like Guam, Hawai’i, Okinawa, Europe, and other navy bases.

Robert Kaplan is associated with the neo-cons but he is an excellent security historian.  What he says about US naval moves against China is that we should focus on building our presence so enmeshed with Pacific interests that China will be more inclined to ally with us than to try to displace us.  This is a strategy akin to the UK realizing it had to partner with the US after WW2, and akin to the argument that alienating Japan before WW2 would push them to attack the US for control of the Pacific.

Some quotes:

“None of this will change our need for basing rights in the Pacific, of course. The more access to bases we have, the more flexibility we’ll have—to support unmanned flights, to allow aerial refueling, and perhaps most important, to force the Chinese military to concentrate on a host of problems rather than just a few. Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve (finding and hitting a carrier, for example), because if you do, he’ll solve them.

“Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam’s northern tip, rep- resents the future of U.S. strategy in the Pacific. It is the most potent platform anywhere in the world for the projection of American military power. Landing there recently in a military aircraft, I beheld long lines of B-52 bombers, C-17 Globemasters, F/A-18 Hornets, and E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, among others. Andersen’s 10,000-foot runways can handle any plane in the Air Force’s arsenal, and could accommodate the space shuttle should it need to make an emergency landing. The sprawl of runways and taxiways is so vast that when I arrived, I barely noticed a carrier air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk, which was making live practice bombing runs that it could not make from its home port in Japan. I saw a truck filled with cruise missiles on one of the runways. No other Air Force base in the Pacific stores as much weaponry as Andersen: some 100,000 bombs and missiles at any one time. Andersen also stores 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the Air Force’s biggest strategic gas-and-go in the world.

“Guam, which is also home to a submarine squadron and an expanding naval base, is significant because of its location. From the island an Air Force equivalent of a Marine or Army division can cover almost all of PACOM’s area of responsibility. Flying to North Korea from the West Coast of the United States takes thirteen hours; from Guam it takes four.

“”This is not like Okinawa,” Major General Dennis Larsen, the Air Force commander there at the time of my visit, told me. “This is American soil in the midst of the Pacific. Guam is a U.S. territory.” The United States can do anything it wants here, and make huge investments without fear of being thrown out. Indeed, what struck me about Andersen was how great the space was for expansion to the south and west of the current perimeters. Hundreds of millions of dollars of construction funds were being allocated. This little island, close to China, has the potential to become the hub in the wheel of a new, worldwide constellation of bases that will move the locus of U.S. power from Europe to Asia. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan, if we had a carrier battle group at Guam we would force the Chinese either to attack it in port—thereby launching an assault on sovereign U.S. territory, and instantly becoming the aggressor in the eyes of the world—or to let it sail, in which case the carrier group could arrive off the coast of Taiwan only two days later.

“During the Cold War the Navy had a specific infrastructure for a specific threat: war with the Soviet Union. But now the threat is multiple and uncertain: we need to be prepared at any time to fight, say, a conventional war against North Korea or an unconventional counterinsurgency battle against a Chinese-backed rogue island-state. This requires a more agile Navy presence on the island, which in turn means outsourcing services to the civilian community on Guam so that the Navy can concentrate on military matters. One Navy captain I met with had grown up all over the Pacific Rim. He told me of the Navy’s plans to expand the waterfront, build more bachelors’ quarters, and harden the electrical-power system by putting it underground. “The fact that we have lots of space today is meaningless,” he said. “The question is, How would we handle the surge requirement necessitated by a full-scale war?”

“There could be a problem with all of this. By making Guam a Hawaii of the western Pacific, we make life simple for the Chinese, because we give them just one problem to solve: how to threaten or intimidate Guam. The way to counter them will be not by concentration but by dispersion. So how will we prevent Guam from becoming too big?

“In a number of ways. We may build up Palau, an archipelago of 20,000 inhabitants between Mindanao, in the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia, whose financial aid is contingent on a defense agreement with us. We will keep up our bases in Central Asia, close to western China—among them Karshi-Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, and Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, which were developed and expanded for the invasion of Afghanistan. And we will establish what are known as cooperative security locations.

“A cooperative security location can be a tucked-away corner of a host country’s civilian airport, or a dirt runway somewhere with fuel and mechanical help nearby, or a military airport in a friendly country with which we have no formal basing agreement but, rather, an informal arrangement with private contractors acting as go-betweens. Because the CSL concept is built on subtle relationships, it’s where the war-fighting ability of the Pentagon and the diplomacy of the State Department coincide—or should. The problem with big bases in, say, Turkey—as we learned on the eve of the invasion of Iraq—is that they are an intrusive, intimidating symbol of American power, and the only power left to a host country is the power to deny us use of such bases. In the future, therefore, we will want unobtrusive bases that benefit the host country much more obviously than they benefit us. Allowing us the use of such a base would ramp up power for a country rather than humiliating it.

“I have visited a number of CSLs in East Africa and Asia. Here is how they work. The United States provides aid to upgrade maintenance facilities, thereby helping the host country to better project its own air and naval power in the region. At the same time, we hold periodic exercises with the host country’s military, in which the base is a focus. We also offer humanitarian help to the surrounding area. Such civil-affairs projects garner positive publicity for our military in the local media—and they long preceded the response to the tsunami, which marked the first time that many in the world media paid attention to the humanitarian work done all over the world, all the time, by the U.S. military. The result is a positive diplomatic context for getting the host country’s approval for use of the base when and if we need it.

“The first part of the twenty-first century will be not nearly as stable as the second half of the twentieth, because the world will be not nearly as bipolar as it was during the Cold War. The fight between Beijing and Washington over the Pacific will not dominate all of world politics, but it will be the most important of several regional struggles. Yet it will be the organizing focus for the U.S. defense posture abroad. If we are smart, this should lead us back into concert with Europe. No matter how successfully our military adapts to the rise of China, it is clear that our current dominance in the Pacific will not last. The Asia expert Mark Helprin has argued that while we pursue our democratization efforts in the Middle East, increasingly befriending only those states whose internal systems resemble our own, China is poised to reap the substantial benefits of pursuing its interests amorally—what the United States did during the Cold War. The Chinese surely hope, for example, that our chilly attitude toward the brutal Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, becomes even chillier; this would open up the possibility of more pipeline and other deals with him, and might persuade him to deny us use of the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Were Karimov to be toppled in an uprising like the one in Kyrgyzstan, we would immediately have to stabilize the new regime or risk losing sections of the country to Chinese influence.”

2) To reinforce naval supremacy will require control of the skies and space.  Orbital satellites provide significant communications for all American forces and commercial interests, and a satellite war would cripple American capabilities.

3) Protecting satellites and increasing outer space security will require something akin to George Friedman’s (CEO of STRATFOR) battle stars (read “The Next 100 Years”), large manned orbital stations that provide armaments and increased surveillance for protecting satellites, providing imagery and comms to the ground, and even shooting down rockets, planes, or attacking ground targets.  Friedman suggests 3 battle stars could be required, orbiting continually in line with the earth’s orbit to always provide overhead support in certain regions.

Says John Reilly in a fair review (read the rest) of George Friedman’s book:

“The section on the Third World War allows the author to wax techno-thrillerish on the matter of mid-21st- century weaponry. We learn a great deal about hypersonic weapons and their ability to blow up unsatisfactory objects anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes. He has plainly thought a great deal about the military applications of space which, again, he views as an extension of Mahan’s strategy of controlling the world’s trade routes. We get a description of geosynchronous Battle Star observation-and-command stations. (He adopts the term “Battle Star,” without noting the implications of that term for his optimistic view of the military and civilian applications of robots of all kinds.) We also get an excursion to bases on the Moon that sounds not altogether unlike Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.””

4) UAVs will continue to improve in sophistication and lethality, and are already providing extra eyes for American border security (see San Diego), Afghanistan/Pakistan targets, and eventually everywhere.  They are rapidly getting improved optics, more dangerous armaments, higher altitudes, and more time overhead (like these UAVs that can hover instead of do racetracks).  UAVs will probably be complementing increasingly robotic android armies, taking humans off the front lines to be replaced with dispensable robots to do war-fighting and perimeter security.

These seem like very far-off strategic priorities but these must be driven by intentional funding, innovative projects, and understanding by the citizenry of their importance.  I am far more in favor of continued intelligence dominance by the US than I am of attempting to do neo-colonial counter-insurgency and nation-building abroad, when domestic security and international respect for governments would suffice in building networks against terrorist plots.

There are plenty of other questions, too, such as whether it would be bad for China to compete with us or take over the seas.  Or what the impact would be of increased naval presence in the Pacific (see below the long comment about Guam).  Or whether alternatives are viable (building floating bases instead of using land).  I’d like to see more discussion on all of that below, if you could take the time.

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Filed under Foreign, Globalization, Military, Policy, Security, Terrorism/Insurgency

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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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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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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Filed under Business, Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Openness, Policy, Privacy, Reputation, Web

Recruitment

I was having lunch with a couple buddies of mine, one of whom took Michael Scheuer’s “Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad” class with me.  He reminded me of one of Professor Scheuer’s best points made during the semester.

I might have forgotten some of the details, so I apologize, but I hope to capture the main crux of his argument.

Scheuer was in the Agency during the days of the Cold War, and so recruitment of Soviets was of course a large priority.

Scheuer drew a large circle with a much smaller circle in the middle of it.  The large circle represented all the Soviet military members.  The smaller one was the top brass, the tight inner circle.

He said that the higher a servicemember got in the hierarchy within the Soviet system, the easier he was to recruit.  The reason for this was that he had more access and could see the faults with the system, how flawed it was and how vaporous it was.  The grand promises extolled by the privates and the junior servicemembers were never delivered, and after promotions and receiving more responsibilities, it became an alienating experience.

Thus the US could recruit them, no doubt in part because the US had a healthy economic and political model to confront the Communist model with.

But Al-Qaeda and the mujaheddin movement is something else entirely.  The US can’t find defectors or agents in the same way.

Scheuer used the same diagram, and then explained that it was in fact those on the periphery of the mujaheddin movement who were easiest to pick off, because they were the least indoctrinated and the most conflicted about trying to earn money versus taking up the jihad against injustice, anti-Muslim policies, etc.

Once people had been through the training camps and had seen how the senior leaders lived and led by example, eschewing comfort and wealth and the pride and glory of the world of the infidels, they in fact became even more hardened.  The inner circle of the mujaheddin are even more devout, even more disciplined in their worship of Islam, even more devoted to their cause.  They are tied together by common suffering and hardship in the camps.  They become even more incorruptible by outside attempts of recruitment.

For more, read Omar Nasiri’s “Inside the Jihad”.

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