Category Archives: Development

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…

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

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.

1 Comment

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.

4 Comments

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

Going International to Become More American

In mid-May, I will graduate with a Masters of Science in Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University.  This program is within the School of Foreign Service, formed after World War I to train Americans to engage with the rest of the world both in business and in diplomacy.  Today, about a third of our class consists of international students, and the topics we study involve international conflict, international business, statecraft, international development, peace-building, intelligence, and so on.  Our students have all traveled to many countries and many of us speak multiple languages.

Without malice, people joke that our class’s party photos look like Benetton ads because so many different colors, cultures, and countries are represented.  After a couple years of schooling in MSFS, we’ve been given policy toolsets and have been exposed to methods of viewing the world’s myriad quirky regions through different lenses.  Multiculturalism is normal within our program, on campus, and in DC.

Now, I’m not about to start talking about how the environment here is perfect.  Certainly it is an elite international class that is able to enjoy such an expensive education.  And certainly most students end up associating mostly with those of their own nationality by default.  But there’s nothing wrong with all that.  We are, after all, inherently tribal, and we gather with those of the same cultural heritage and customs as ourselves.

Unavoidably American

With that in mind, through all my experiences thus far, both in personal travel and in academic research, I’ve been confronted more and more brutally and unavoidably with the conclusion that I am, despite any illusions or deceptions, an American, and an American citizen and ambassador at that.

This may seem obvious to you, but do you not feel some doubts about your own nationality at times?  Assuming you’re “American”, do you not think of yourself as a midwesterner, or a Californian, or an east coaster, at times?  Did you get caught up in the post-9/11 debate about who was a “real” American?  Is it a flag-waving pro-military midwesterner or is it a liberal who thinks waving a flag is meaningless and trite?  Is it an Iowan farmer?  Is it a blue-collar union family from Detroit?  Is it a productive east coast elitist New Yorker who was attacked on 9/11?  Do you consider this or that party not in keeping with America’s original values?  Did you ever feel embarrassed when traveling that people would know you were American?

If you’re anything like me, you have moments where you think, yeah, I’m American, but other Americans don’t speak for me; I don’t agree with a lot of things we’re doing.  I didn’t vote for him.  I don’t have the responsibility for this, or for the war, or for failing “morals”.

We don’t always claim ownership when things are bad.  We’re discouraged from sacrifice.  It must have been someone else’s fault.

Military Service

Certainly I felt American when wearing the Army uniform and American flag every day for five years.  And certainly I felt American when I deployed to Iraq and served my country.  I felt pride when wearing my ACUs, representing the United States.  But I also knew that while riding on convoys in Baghdad, that many of the people who gazed upon me wanted to kill me for my uniform as well.

I felt American despite the Constitution being tampered with, reinterpreted, and spun in order to justify treachery, classification, intimidation, rendition, torture, murder, and corruption.  I felt American, rather alienated, when fellow soldiers completely disagreed with me on our presence in Iraq.

Yes, it was tough to swallow the things my country has done.  It was tough to see and do things I was a part of as a soldier in Iraq.

I felt American, but I’m not sure I felt like a very good representative.  I certainly didn’t share my patriotism with Bush’s words of nationalistic fervor.

Georgetown

Then I came to Georgetown and was exposed to a lot of different cultures and languages and ways of thinking.  While I felt comfortable engaging with others, at the same time I began to notice my own differences with them more, perhaps standing in stark contrast against the backdrop of multiculturalism.

What really came out of me during this period was my desire to effect change, to free the oppressed (“de oppresso liber”, the motto of my former command, Special Forces), to help the poor, and to use new ideas and new technology to accomplish all of that.  In short, I became very socially entrepreneurial and empowered to be so.

Such American traits.  Respect and love for professional militarism (which the American public has become enamored with, if not detached from), highly entrepreneurial, desire to be creative and proactive and generous.  I felt more American than ever.

With Barack Obama being elected, and the faux-Texan being kicked out, my American-ness was something I genuinely was able to share with others, spontaneously during the inauguration concert.  It was something I had previously felt only when wearing the uniform in the Army, among other soldiers in my teams, platoons, or units.  The pride returned, in the same way morale improved in the military once General Petraeus took charge in Iraq.  The cycle of bad leadership had come to an end. [my friend MonkeyPope vehemently disagrees with this assertion — he thinks Petraeus still makes poor, politicized leadership decisions, and says his unit didn’t like Petraeus]

I think I originally came to grad school after feeling left in the dark about what my country was doing as I got older.  Even as part of the military, I felt like there was a lot I wasn’t privy to.  How did my country really conduct foreign policy?  How did it set policy as representative of its people?  Would I let my leaders deceive and mislead me again?  Or would I do something to inoculate myself against ignorance?

Against the Free Market Radicals

This is a peculiarity and a peccadillo I learned during my time here at Georgetown, partially through my own experience, partially through watching the election cycle, and partially through studying democratization theory and poverty reduction:  Friedmanism, Reaganism, whatever it’s called these days, detaches people from their responsibility to anything beyond themselves.

Those who seek bare minimum government, lower taxes, a volunteer military, and Ayn Rand-style objectivism fall into a peculiar situation where they have no sacrifices they must give to their country.  Thus, while they promote war abroad, disengagement from the poor and disadvantaged, and massive privatization, they are also reducing funding to these areas and taking part in civic engagement less and less.

Sadistically, Reagan cut off the head of the EPA (Bush would do the same to USAID and State) so that it couldn’t operate, and then said, hey, look, government can’t operate.  Republicans cut federal and state budgets and then said, hey, look, government can’t operate.  Welfare and re-distribution programs (which help to forestall, well, a freaking rebellion) were cut, and they said, hey, look, these poor people are lazy and don’t want to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.  Sort of a self-fulfilling strategy to kill off undesirable policies.

Being taxed means you lose your hard-earned money, yes, but it also means you should have a say in how that money is spent.  The possibility of being drafted means that you will care a lot more if your government decides to mobilize for war.  Feeling a responsibility towards helping those less fortunate than you (i.e. through equal rights) means you might decide to support welfare (or the new favorite, “workfare”) programs.

Chicken-Hawks

Joe Scarborough on MSNBC and The Colbert Report just devoted large segments of their programs towards making fun of Glenn Beck, who has been crying embarrassingly like a pussy on his show about how much he loves his country.  Somewhat similar to the House Representative John Boehner, who is constantly crying on the House floor about how he hopes we don’t sell out the troops.

Quite outrageously insulting to me, given that Beck seems to have served not a lick of public service, and Boehner washed out of the Navy after 8 weeks with a bad back.  It’s a humiliation as a war veteran to look at grown men who’ve sacrificed little for their country crying on TV in front of a large domestic audience and a potential international audience of Iranians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Russians, Chinese, etc. who see weakness in men crying.  These men do not speak for me.  I use the term “men” lightly, since such crying nancies with no spine (literally, in one case), are hardly the pinnacle of virility and machismo that they make themselves out to be the spokesmen for.  It’s like watching Jim and Tammy Faye Baker drenching their cheeks with mascara on Dallas Christian TV.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Until I went to Georgetown, a private university, I was a product of many public institutions.  I went to public schools in Texas and then to the University of Texas at Austin, a state school, for undergrad.  After that, I joined the Army, a massive socialist institution within the US bureaucracy (an inconvenient truth for the pro-military right-wing hawks).  These public/state institutions gave me the opportunities to get to where I am today.  Were it not for the many teachers, administrators, and support systems within them, I wouldn’t be here today.  I almost decided to go to UT Austin for grad school as well, but luckily, in an extremely competitive higher education system, I could also choose among private schools.

And I was lucky enough to be admitted to Georgetown, with the help of the amazing administrators within MSFS who gave me a chance, and my classmates, who helped me along the way.  Georgetown, I might add, is private, yes, but it supports within its walls Jesuit priests who support the Georgetown community spiritually.

The point is, there are many people responsible for everyone else’s success, and pursuing complete self-interest breaks down such social fabrics through neglect and fiscal strangulation.  I would argue that it might even make us less American, less patriotic for our country.

Service and Responsibility

So I now feel beholden to my country, responsible for its well-being.  The program started by a Jesuit Catholic, Edmund Walsh, to prepare Americans to be ambassadors of their bold country, has rubbed off on me.  I seek to show the world what’s best about my country.  What I perhaps didn’t expect, studying how to interact with other countries, was that the best way to show others as an ambassador would be to lead by example.

Certainly this is the sergeant ethos in the military.  Lead from the front.  Don’t ask your soldiers to do something you wouldn’t.  Be proactive, take the initiative, drive on, etc. etc.  Most people WANT to do something, but they need leaders to show them the way, to give them bravery, to give them focus, to allow them to do their work.

I did my concentration in international development to apply technology to reducing poverty.  I’m not sure, though, that I ever thought I’d be applying my development background, being an ambassador to the world, to solving problems in my own country.

But I think that’s where I’m probably going.  The US is beset with all sorts of internal problems:  massive unemployment that might be sustained over a long period of time, badly uncompetitive infrastructure (weak public transport compared to, say, Japan and Germany), expensive telecommunications compared to its peers, dwindling educational competitiveness at the high school level, a collapse in innovation policy, anti-commons regulatory thickets in pharma and spectrum and patents and copyright, bizarre limited government theory within the context of a massive deficit, etc.

Within the context of a tenuous pause in Iraq, a near-failed Pakistan, massive indecision in Afghanistan policy, 2005/2006 Baghdad-like low-level violence in Mexico, a belligerent Israel acting with impunity in the face of policy failure under the auspices of the US, an increasingly dismissive but also increasingly influential Iran, and an embarrassing energy policy, the US is in danger of losing itself in all the distraction.

So yes, I do feel like an American citizen, and I do feel responsible for my country, and I do think what problems there are in the world must be fixed by starting at home.

Universal Human Rights

Through my development reading, I think what I’ve settled on is that the US can easily start fixing its problems by fully investing itself in its Bill of Rights, and adhering to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as much as constitutionally possible.  Created in 1948, endorsed weakly by many countries, and consisting of 30 articles guaranteeing fundamental freedoms for every person on the planet, this Declaration is no where close to being completely implemented within the United States, where as Americans we are raised believing that we are all guaranteed equal rights.

Having been in the Army and living in some of the most segregated areas in the country (Georgia, DC, Texas), I’ve seen plenty of racism, sexism, and sexual bias.  Hell, the military has a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and gays can’t marry.  Never mind that some of the best leaders among my friends and cohorts in the Army are gay, and have served more time in a warzone than many of those who don’t want gays in the military.

American Exceptionalism is Made Up of Myths

There are many traits that are not uniquely American but that we associate with ourselves.  That first trait is that Americans believe all are created equal.  I strongly disagree that Americans really, innately, believe this.  I would also say that it’s not just Americans who are hard-working, although we love the image of the toiling blue-collar worker or farmer or, more recently, business executive.  We are not very good at sustainable management, despite our fanaticism for leadership roles and legendary success as Gordon Gecko/Carnegie robber barons.  We’ve sunk entire cultures and countries with our international development “strategies”.  Many of our stalwart institutions and companies have been placed on life support by fraudulent, unethical, insipid senior management who, in the case of insurance and auto companies, still feel they deserve large bonuses and lives of decadent privilege while their businesses lose billions of dollars a quarter.

When I look for the closest model to the Americans, strangely it seems like sub-Saharan Africa is the most similar.  Not, say, the Europeans.  Africa is bursting with social entrepreneurial energy and an innate desire to do business no matter what the environment is.  Its continent has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world.  It has been tainted by colonialism and by bailouts and aid.  The spirit and vigor I see in today’s Africans, I identify with as an American.  How odd is that?

This presents a deep problem if I had earlier stated that entrepreneurialism is one of America’s unique traits.  In running a draft of this post past my good Army buddy MonkeyPope, he noted,

“You seem to hint at entrepreneurship and innovation, but instead go off on a tangent about how our character resembles Africa, but you’re so much more interested in your analogy that it obfuscates and does not illuminate. Also, how do we play to our business strengths?  Relatedly, again something you hint at, but don’t outright express, couldn’t it be argued that in addition to the E and the I, another American strength is public works and volunteerism? Thus furthering the irony of self-isolated bootstrap Republicans opposed to goverment initiatives to improve the public good, such as Obama’s lip service to a broad American-wide volunteer service initiative.”

He makes very good points.  Africans and, now that I think of it, Indians are quite entrepreneurial.  Is the difference that Americans enjoy a high scientific and educational capital base for advanced technical entrepreneurship, while Africans and Indians tend to mobilize their low capital base for cheaper, yet perhaps more populist alternatives?  How long can such an American edge last if it’s losing its technical edge (from less funding and fewer engineers) while paying less attention to social entrepreneurship?

Philanthropy most certainly is a unique American trait for the moment.  Perhaps the Scandinavians and Europeans are more effectively using their money to help others, but do other countries have the history of reformed monopolists and robber barons and political families and business moguls turning into philanthropists as we do?  Is that something we can maintain if we lose what little collective spirit we have?

What of collective spirit, anyway?  Do I feel sympathy for that point of view because I am part Chinese?  Most certainly the Chinese, after Deng Xiaoping institutionalized it, think in terms of collectivism over the “cult of the individual” (a thinly veiled euphemism for Chairman Mao’s chapter).

Perhaps, then, one unique American trait is its ability to assimilate cultures.  Maybe in my being American, what I derive uniqueness is that combination of traits melted and reformed together from my heritage.  American acceptance of high risk, high reward individualistic entrepreneurship, a British appreciation for education, Chinese discipline and collectivism and high-context communication and desire to work hard.  Fused with having lived in the deep south, raised in Texas, born in the midwest, educated for a bit on both coasts, served as property of the US military.

Perhaps defining what it is to be American is so difficult precisely BECAUSE of the inability to approximate its characteristics.  Multi-racial people are becoming the norm in the US, a fascinating blend of cultures and attitudes and perspectives.  Where else can claim a mixing of cultures as ours combined with the freedom to go forth and create something new from that background, to become high-profile celebrity-entrepreneur-scientist-philanthropist-businessman-politician legendary stereotypes?

From what MonkeyPope suggested, can I take this further?  Can I say that this all suggests that supporting diversity, increasing self-actualization through affirming human rights, and seeking to build human capital through social programs is something that leads to massive gains in American well-being?

It’s a possible lead that I want to think more deeply about, for sure.  What makes you feel most American, if you are one?  What do you see as America’s defining traits?

Exclusion vs. Inclusion

Given that the Republicans seem comfortable with worsening and increasingly privatized education such that ignorance can be exploited through tabloid politics and not enlightened debate (as they should want according to their love of the Founding Fathers), they seem to willingly be obstacles in expanding the American Dream.  Wall Street seems comfortable withholding access to information in the markets it created and which have sucked money out of the peoples’ wallets and into a select groups’ coffers.  So Wall Street also seems to want to antagonize the American Dream.  Anywhere where people believe you do not have the need or intelligence to access their information, you can guarantee that they are trying to fleece you of your rights.

Which is why the American Dream must be defined as providing universal human rights.  Such a legal basis, true freedom for all people, provides a foundation for a sustainable future.  Such a basis leads to the need for true accountability, reciprocity, and transparency — which is why I’m trying to build an ecosystem for reputations and identities.

Here’s what Barack Obama said about the American Dream at the 2008 Democratic National Convention:

“What is that promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect. It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road. Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work. That’s the promise of America – the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”

Scandinavia is now the leader in providing the most access to its people to universal human rights, despite the American self-love as a nation of “freedom”.  The US could immediately take the lead through a sweeping redefinition of American identity using the UDHR as a basis.  Reengagement of its citizens with the government by incentivizing non-disenfranchisement.  It’d make for a great start.  The observation effects worldwide would be massive.  Just as Britain, India, and the US (eventually) inspired positive world events, such as widescale decolonization of Africa and abolition of slavery (read David Brion Davis’s “Inhuman Bondage”), this would be impossible to ignore.  Public diplomacy?  It’s done mostly through example, not through force or subversion.

De oppresso liber.

How to Move Forward

This is a long rant.  But I’ve been sorting out all these thoughts as I come in to my own, as a fully aware American citizen.  Americans have a particular opportunity right now to invest in science, technology, IT, solar power, infrastructure, innovation, and all those things it’s always been good at, to build a new future economy and to free ourselves from the constraints of the past like energy and inefficient ways of conducting health care or producing food.

By understanding ourselves, and fully embracing our characteristics, we can increase our fundamental independence, which can show strength and leadership by example.  As JFK said (and corrupted by Reagan, McCain, and Palin), 60 days into his administration just as about where Obama is in his new administration:  “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

He went on to say,

“History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these.

“For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state—our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions:

“First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?

“Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?

“Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?

“Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.”

Getting Our House in Order

Increased independence brings flexibility in decision-making, which we can use to promote our image, and to change the nature of our relationships abroad from less dependent/aggressive to more equitable/positive.  At that point, we can begin to work on fixing our massive foreign policy restraints.

It starts at home.  As cliche as this sounds, it only took me taking a pretty round-about path of exploring the world outside of the US to realize that.  And I’m still pretty young, so I have a lot to learn.  Certainly being among my many peers in the Army and in grad school has been immensely humbling — both other Americans and those from other nations are exceedingly strong, full of stamina, intelligent, creative, proactive, and beautiful to observe and interact with.  All our differences, though, are good differences, and they can be used constructively by all.  It is not a zero-sum game.

We have the internet, rapidly linking us all closer together.  The US has Barack Obama, currently mesmerizing world leaders in London at the G-20, even doing a thumbs-up in some official photos.  We have an opportunity now.  The pieces are in place.

What we need now (as is always needed) is courage to live up to the potential to do great things that everyone knows and hopes that we have as Americans.

2 Comments

Filed under Business, Development, Government, International Affairs, Policy

Reinvigorating USAID

It occurred to me that I might have a great way to inject some vitality and vigor into USAID.  Granted, this is somewhat of a flippant post and doesn’t address all the serious policy issues that USAID has to deal with.  But I figure with all the problems USAID is having, what with most Americans not even knowing what USAID is (!), what harm would this idea do?

So USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, is in charge of aid programs to emerging and undeveloped countries.  Its staff has been greatly reduced in the last two decades or so, and Dubya managed to behead USAID of its key management in the same way that Reagan did to the EPA.  The USAID has such a poor image problem that SecDef Gates and SecState Clinton seem to be the ones defending the agency these days, saying that more funding and hiring energy should go into USAID.

USAID needs a lot more people.  But it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money, especially right now.  USAID also needs a brand makeover.  It has almost no awareness in the US, and has a sketchy reputation abroad.  International development as a whole is taking some knocks.

So here’s what we do.  Send in the young entrepreneurs.  Tons of them.  Screen kids in high school and college for problem-solving curiosity and initiative.  Even throw camps to bring those qualities out of them.  Then send them to DC or to development areas worldwide.  Peace Corps on the cheap but with entrepreneurs instead of “do-gooders”.

Most of the kids wouldn’t be safe abroad, so leave them to work on projects in the US.  But here’s the rub.  Let them figure out what the problems are, and let them use their problem-solving skills to organize the projects.  That is, social entrepreneurs do best when they know their environment well and see all the problems within that society and then seek ways to fix them.  What they need is a structure around them to encourage them to solve those problems.  USAID’s goal would be to use its excellent senior managers and junior workers (apparently USAID’s main liability is its mid-career vacuum) to supervise those social entrepreneurs.

So what you get is a self-organizing insurgent initiative within USAID that is encouraging the next generation of international development/engineering social entrepreneurs to get some field experience and some hands-on time.  With very little cost and a lot of upside, not requiring large investments in career capital.

The underlying principle is that there is a whole generation of people out there ready to do something fun, cool, interesting, and helpful, but they really have no way to do it.  Let these problem-solvers do what they do best, and encourage it from an early age.

USAID can market itself this way:  sucking up young future leaders into its orbit and taking on a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit.  The boring current USAID logo says much about its decaying position within the US budget and policy priority list.  At this point it needs to take on some insurgent qualities and juggle up its DNA.

USAID’s role as an agency for development not only could take on more life abroad, but also at home, at a time when the economy is getting crushed and innovation is stagnating relative to past generations’ perceptions.

So how’s about it, USAID?  Let’s see some fire in your belly.  Let our people do what they do best.

2 Comments

Filed under Development, Government, International Affairs, Marketing, Policy

Why I Chose Development

When I tell people I’m studying development at grad school, their eyes glaze over.  What does this mean?

Are they confused as to whether I mean business development as in getting new clients?  Or as in employee training?  Do they only understand what I mean if I say “international development” instead?

Do they know what the field is, but assume that it’s just for pot-smoking Peace Corps losers who want to go help the dark-skinned starving people who have AIDS?

Or do they REALLY know what the field is, and associate development with World Bank and IMF policies which were attacked for being neo-colonialist and usurious toward developing nations?

Those are the broad generalizations and stereotypes.

And what of me?  I just got out of the Army.  I went from trying to kill some people to learning how to help others.

To be honest, I applied to the Georgetown Masters of Science in Foreign Service program intending to study foreign policy and try to start a career in national security policy.  I figured I could continue doing what I was doing before, but at a higher policy level.

But all the classes I wanted to take were in development.  Why?  Because that’s where a lot of cool stuff is going on.

Here’s what international development is to me:  billions of people around the world still aren’t healthy, educated, and online.  They have no voice.  They have few rights.

Meanwhile, technologies in health, science, telecommunications and economics fields that study behavior, developing markets, microfinance, etc. are all converging.

Lift people out of poverty and you connect more people together.  You get new ideas, new influences, new businesses, new economic models, new politics.  You get substantially more new opportunities for business and sharing and progress.  You get more representation from around the world.

Have you heard of USAID?  DFID?  UNDP?  Probably not, but these organizations are using a lot of money to fund programs that are geared towards certain aspects of development, including human capacity, governance, gender equality, food and nutrition, etc.

In the past, funding and programs had disastrous results.  Economic theory has been most pushed by areas such as development theory, which has failed time and time again to deliver success to third world nations.  Models have been hyped up and then discarded as they’ve led to countless failures.  But all that work has enabled us to figure out the different elements of what goes into human organization:  politics, individual rational and irrational decision-making, economics, biological nutritional and health and hygiene needs, etc.

Also strongly influencing helping poor people has been foreign policy (why Afghan development and not Darfur?), economic ideology (Keynes vs. Friedman), and misinformation about what has succeeded and what hasn’t (AIDS awareness programs).

And how do you measure the success of programs and donor money?  This requires a study of basic accounting and balance sheets for microenterprise and microfinance, developing proper metrics to properly assess impact of projects (does counting the number of graduates in a country tell you improvement in overall education?), and understanding of how to win a development contract and then plan it through 5 years to completion with a fluctuating budget.

Do you know what that is, all that project design and evaluation stuff?  It’s basically the same thing as learning how to found and run your own startup.

That’s where I’m going with all this.  I want to start new companies.  If all the stuff above didn’t excite you, then I’m not sure what will, because all of what goes into development involves all aspects of the human condition and learning how people make decisions and what people need to be successful.  It involves all the fields where breakout technologies are currently coming from.  It involves being able to meet and interact with and do business with vastly more people.

Development rides a lot off social change, but also technological and economic change.  The implicit understanding, in my opinion, is that development is disruptive.  Sometimes this can be very bad, but hopefully it will be even better.  I seek the new, profitable ideas.

Even the coldest entrepreneur-oriented MBA, who writes development off as poor-paying jobs in bad countries, needs to understand where the market gaps are in order to found a new company and make a lot of money.  One would need to understand social needs, social trends, and the limits of said change within policy and economic environment contexts.  Learning straight-up MBA tools can help you only if it builds upon the potential you have to create your own ideas — that is, business training only helps you monetize pre-existing ideas — it doesn’t actually create new ideas.

That’s enough of my rant on that.  Probably a bit unfair, anyway.  I want to keep this pretty positive and insightful so I guess I’ll close by saying that I have been deeply suspicious of policy and aid but upon learning more about it, I’ve found that there’s just so much meat in the study of it that I’m loving every bit of it.

1 Comment

Filed under Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, International Affairs, Policy

Webheads for Africa

This is an aside but today’s market rally (Dow +936) was astounding. I barely made any money though (sadface) because most of the move was on a gap up and I think you would’ve had to be suicidal to buy on Friday to hold over the weekend. To be honest I don’t know what the market will do next. I’m not sure the US has taken any moves to make the system more structurally sound. They’re just trying to recapitalize it.

So recently some web experts (inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at Web 2.0 New York) have been talking about how the community needs to start designing applications that matter; that is, not beer-drinking or sheep-slinging apps for the iPhone but apps for poor people in Africa.

Any time you hear this kind of stuff, watch out. It’s just either guilt or self-righteousness talking. The idea that some developer in San Francisco is going to make some app that Africans (the poorest of whom have slow data connections, no security, unstable food supplies, little defense against disease, et al will want more AJAX is absurd.

In fact this “help the dark-skinned people” is the same philosophy that’s been pushed in international development for the last few decades. It led to technocrats enforcing strict, paternal structural adjustment programs on countries that just don’t seem to get this whole free market thing. It led to flooding money to leaders who realized they just had to say they were trying to reform while in truth they used the money to keep themselves in power. It led to thinking that persists today that Africa is a backwards place that will never sort itself out.

The truth is that the American web folks should keep doing exactly what they’re doing: working on open standards and protocols and authentication systems that allow us to share data without compromising passwords so that we can ensure data control and privacy. That seems to be the big thing we need to work on, along with moving the tools into business and government. And you know what? That stuff will migrate immediately to African platforms and sites when they need it. What? Do webheads know the first thing about HIV prevention programs and deployment, agricultural productivity, or conflict management?

Right now I’m reading a lot more Africa blogs and it sounds like they’re developing their own culturally relevant tools. Could they use technical help? Sure, we all could. But they’re not sitting around waiting for the web experts to swoop in and bless them with tools that will lift them out of poverty.

So can we drop that canard now? It seems like the World Bank, IMF, and other international agencies have, and look! Things have quickly improved in developing nations worldwide.

[addendum: Tim Berners-Lee recently sensibly announced the World Wide Web Foundation, which I think has a more realistic approach for getting everyone wired and collaborating.]

2 Comments

Filed under Communications, Development, International Affairs, Internet, Policy, Web