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,, 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 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.

  • “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. ”

    But I’m not sure that is what you are arguing. Specifically, things like “The Game” or Facebook or see this NYT piece on bringing measurement to Madison Ave ( don’t try to study humans _as animals_ but _as machines_.

    I am increasingly convinced (thanks to Georgetown’s Jesuit focus, I think), that there is more complexity to the human experience than can be quantified in any worthy manner – valuable manner, perhaps, but not worthy of human richness.

    I think Lewis Hyde captures this well in “The Gift” – there are deeply ingrained ethical contours of humanity that are not so easily mapped out.

  • In her new autobio, the founder of the Acumen Fund (similar to Ashoka) talks a lot about investing in individual entrepreneurs that they believe in. It’s a valid point; one I’m glad you raised.

    So, to intersect with my previous comment:

    What are the ways to find worthy individuals, as opposed to ideas? I really have no idea what formal management science is about, but I think it may come close to motivating people, not ideas. Can you capture them in a survey and interview and resume? Or do they come from longer-term interpersonal relationships (and perhaps that is why entry-level positions you mention are so important…)?

  • Ben

    Kevin, great points. You definitely addressed some key concerns and areas that I glossed over out of ignorance.

    I think that I don’t want to quantify people like machines, but I do feel as though nature and science are in line with each other. That is, within an ecosystem, you may not know exactly what you’ll get, but if you have more of one resource than another, then the ecosystem will balance itself out for that input imbalance. So it’s not about predicting behavior exactly, which metrics almost seem to do, but studying what actual behaviors are. That is, observation, not anticipation…

    I must read The Gift, and the link you posted, and will respond to you on those later.

    I think we know how to find worthy individuals intuitively, for the most part, but that has not really been incorporated into formal systems. The best hiring seems to be unencumbered from HR process and organizational bureaucracy. Yeah?

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