An Ode to Coke Zero

Back when I was in grad school in Washington DC, I wrote a brief blog post about my love for Coca-Cola Zero.  I didn’t get into much detail there, so 9 years later, as I still drink Coke Zero regularly, I wanted to revisit the topic in greater depth.

I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.

To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day.  It’s a regular staple of my diet.  If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man.  I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff.  I’ve got my wife hooked onto it.  At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.

History

I don’t know much about the history of Coke Zero, but according to its wiki page, it was created to be primarily targeted towards men, since Diet Coke was seen as a product for women.  It was released in 2005 but was piloted in several different iterations prior to that.  It got an early start with white packaging.

The Taste

Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero.  Function is crucial.  For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way.  In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.

In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage.  It checks all the boxes.

And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke.  At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability.  Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero.  Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.

The Bottle

The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle.  According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915.  The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.

The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip.   The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint.  But that’s not my problem.

The cap of a bottle is crucial.  For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can.  And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.

The Branding

Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background.  Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar.  The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color.  Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green.  Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.

Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color.  In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:

I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense.  I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.

Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.

My Coke Rewards

For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.

Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.

I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well.  The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.

I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.

Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff.  I eventually stopped using it.

Availability

This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.

Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero?  If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference?  Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?

This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation:  either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.

I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.

Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.

Final Words

For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category.  While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises.  But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.

On #OccupyWallStreet

For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet.  I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it.  It’s the same thing on Twitter.  Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest.  A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts).  One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.

Maddening.  I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.

Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS.  These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests.  On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes.  While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.

It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009.  And during the anti-war protests.  Mocking or ignoring.

I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC.  I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights).  The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.

While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad.  The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.

I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today.  We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for.  In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator.  That is the danger of singular cause movements.  It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.

Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.”  Were you just supposed to know it intuitively?  No, you have to go read about it and study and research it.  There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands.  There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point.  It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands.  Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.

So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out.  I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.

Issues of The Occupied Wall Street Journal
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself.  The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff.  If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit.  I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future.  When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.

Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement.  They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work.  He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work.  It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results.  It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over.  But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement.  Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience.  It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s.  If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.

Counter of People Worldwide Offering Support
Anonymous has been interesting.  It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks.  I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days.  I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities.  Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered.  It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks.  It was kept at bay by apathy.

But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has.  Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.

So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo.  There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service.  Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!

The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic.  Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line.  Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government.  It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts.  That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face.  But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally.  The Army keeps rolling along.

So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating.  Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.

I think that might be the only time I really get pissed.  When people denigrate the efforts of others.  When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better.  That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures.  Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.

Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world.  She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to.  But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger.  She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.

Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.

The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society.  Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate.  We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well.  Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world.  If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?

That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.

When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq.  There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!

Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal.  You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.

Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity.  You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids.  But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble.  You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people.  You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion.  You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.

And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels.  You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance.  All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes).  You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid.  You won’t “succeed” in life.

I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job.  One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law.  Or you work as a barista.  There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities.  It hollows out society.  And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons.  You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.

I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future.  Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).

I don’t fault the companies so much.  They are doing what they should be doing.  Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally.  They are winning the policy war in DC.

Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests.  We have a complete failure of political leadership.  And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.

We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream.  I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.

This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through.  It’s a depressing state of affairs.  People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other.  These are not crazy concepts.  These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.

I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason.  It has fringe.  Yes, of course.  Everything inclusive has fringe.  Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it.  We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind.  How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”?  Have they given up on life already?  Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings?  I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it.  Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”

So here’s a challenge I guess.  Who do you want to end up being?  Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s?  What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it?  And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others?  Will you try to work with them to build something better?  Or will you keep your head down?  Are you your fucking khakis?

A final note.  Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with.  All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this.  He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in.  You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things.  I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.

OUT HERE.

Force Multipliers

Ever since I was in the Army and learned about force multipliers, it’s been a term with magical meaning to me.  When I arrived at my Special Forces Group to begin my assignment as an intel dude supporting the ODAs, we’d be getting an even more precise force multiplier speech than the one we got in basic training.

Someone with solid training, the aggressive spirit to take the initiative, and cool demeanor can lead others during an event which would cause most people to lock up in fear and uncertainty.  The training is designed to give some muscle memory and reinforced learning through mistakes, but more importantly, training to react to scenarios helps people keep a focused mind and communicate to those around them who may be distracted.

It’s the person who runs into a conflict, not away from it, and begins verbally commanding people to do very specific tasks, since simpler commands are easier for people to comprehend when they’re distressed.  Thus one person begins utilizing other people to perform one task, shortening reaction time and coordinating multiple efforts.  That leader is a force multiplier because the net benefit derived from the group is only achieved, in a short timespan, through quick decision-making.

In the Special Forces context, the Special Forces teams are supposed to, as part of their mission, train indigenous forces for specialized tasks.  SF soldiers can take a group of ragtags and train them enough so that they can run their own missions effectively, and they can be mobilized quickly.  The SF soldier makes something out of very little.  He is a force multiplier.

Unleashing the Gays

Our country needs force multipliers.  The government and social services need to be seen as force multipliers.  Regardless of how churches and social structures adjust to the inevitability of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, the plain and simple truth for the civic mind is that gay marriage is a force multiplier.  Having more potential loving parents to raise children will raise social capital, and perhaps enrich the overall supply of social capital since it will offer social DNA by way of a creative, active gay community.  Any people we can find who pursue love and happiness and justice will make great parents and role models, and we can use all the help we can get right now.  Gay marriage is a force multiplier.

Health Care

Government providing a basic standard for health care is a force multiplier.  I do believe in a mixed system, where everyone has a right to basic care, but can pay more for a specialist if the money is available.  Competition between not just different for-profits but also between different models (not-for-profit, govt, for-profit) means a better mix of interests.  As an employer I do not want to worry about providing health care, and as an employee I want to know I can shift jobs or careers without having to worry about losing health care coverage.  Also, a sensible government outlook towards preventative care provides a unified message for improving the general health of all Americans.  Healthier Americans means more productive Americans.  A force multiplier.  It’s a high cost, yes, but the net benefit to social capital, generational momentum, and economic productivity must be far larger.

Public Goods As Force Multipliers

The “public good” is often a force multiplier.  Twitter I considered a public good for a while.  Its search tool was phenomenal.  It gave access to tons of data.  The API is still the best example of how to build a public good that an app and developer ecosystem can thrive off of.  Now Twitter has lost some of its key developers and is trying to be more of an advertising, consolidating monolith, and it’s begun to lose some of its utility.  The search box is far less useful than it used to be, apps are getting shut down in favor of Twitter’s own limited functionalities, and the public good is wilting.

Parks, mixed-use urban design, libraries, interstate road systems, public education, these are all public goods, thought to be provided by the government.  Government funding for basic research is a public good.  Such public goods allow for innovation and creativity and perhaps most of all, experimentation and social networking.

These days, public goods are hated as wasteful and inefficient.  Anything new and innovative that manages to creep up between the cracks on the internet or in New York City or somewhere else gets smacked down with lawsuits.  We are not allowed to do anything anymore.  Not only is it not creative, but it is a chilling effect.  Why even bother if you know you’ll get sued?  This kills the pipelines and ecosystems that are needed to raise force multipliers.

Naomi Klein made a good point in her book “No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs” about how the public space is gone.  I remember when my buddy and I went to a mall (which was the social spot of choice for kids my age, since it had an arcade and a pet shop and a computer game store) to videotape something.  Within minutes of filming, a guard came out and told us we weren’t allowed.  This public space, though owned by a private company, was off-limits for public space uses.  Now just extrapolate this to business properties all around your city, and the reduction of park space along with fewer trees and places to sit and all the things humans like around them when they gather.  This kills public goods and spaces, thus killing innovation and curiosity, thus killing the force multipliers and the people who show the force multipliers to the world.

Jobs

Steven Johnson refers to the “adjacent possible” in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation”:

“…innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration. The infinite variety of life that so impressed Darwin, standing in the calm waters of the Keeling Islands, exists because the coral reef is supremely gifted at recycling and reinventing the spare parts of its ecosystem.”

I envision it as an expanding circle of knowledge, with innovators pushing the border of the circle out further so that it may touch more things outside the space.

Johnson:

“The question is how to push your brain toward those more creative networks. The answer, as it happens, is delightfully fractal: to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible. Certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links of association. But these patterns of connection are much older than the human brain, older than neurons even. They take us back, once again, to the origin of life itself.”

In Richard Florida’s “The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life”, he talks about how George Lucas’ works pushed the limits of special effects, having the add-on effect of creating a group of workers who experimented with new techniques and became experts in their field at them.  Then those people went on to create companies of their own, or create new movies and works, thus making new art and products that created jobs and made a ton of money.  The adjacent possible was expanded through a small group of people (and a notable leader) who created a whole new industry.  They were force multipliers.

When I think about NASA losing much of its personnel and funding, I think about the loss of force multipliers.  The cutting back of funding of basic research in government because people consider certain individual projects as wastes of money?  Loss of force multipliers.  Not everything works or spawns something big, but companies are not always going to reliably fund basic research, particularly for public or national goods, on their own.  Not only that, but whatever they do find, they silo away within their own companies’ vaults.  It does not become public knowledge.

The current ideological debate that is occurring before we can transition to the next stage of human development, between government and business, is a total farce.  It is not whether we have to choose.  We need a blend of the public good, the government’s nationalist interest, and the economic powerhouse of business.  They need to balance each other to varying degrees based upon a culture’s values and competitive pressures within a geostrategic reality.  China’s system will not look like America’s system, which won’t look like the European Union’s system.  What we should focus on, moving forward, is restoring a balance, particularly with the motivation through policy to see government as a provider of public goods and force multipliers, which allow the citizenry and businesses to do what they do best: build families and liveable communities (for citizens) and build goods and services (for businesses).

Most of all we need smart leaders.  Leaders who love business and the art and drive of making money, but who also are seen as able to promote the public good (e.g. making America a better place for all) above any one lobbyist’s interest (preferably with some civic or military service time), and who also know basic leadership skills, in terms of motivating others and being force multipliers themselves.  The kind of leader who sees a new business idea that could work, but weighs it against the detriment it may cause to the livability, civility, and fairness on the street amongst the people.  Could we build this into requirements for running for office?  Could we create schools that specifically encourage this tripartite blend of leader?

Comcast Cares

On Nov. 2, my neighbor’s apartment caught fire. After it was put out, our whole floor was put off-limits and has remained so as of this post. I spend most of November waiting to see if I could get into my apartment again. I made some calls to my building manager and to Comcast, and was informed I’d need a copy of the DCFD fire report, which I went downtown to get for $10. Then I decided to try to settle my Comcast stuff and move on with recovering the rest of my life.

from Ben Turner
to [omitted]@cable.comcast.com
date Fri, Dec 3, 2010 at 12:24 PM
subject fire report for comcast equipment

[omitted],

Hello, I received your email address from the Comcast support phone number — the woman I spoke with was incredibly helpful and pro-active. A great experience.

The reason I’m writing is because I need to submit a fire report for my Comcast equipment which was inside my apartment — the apartment across the hall from me caught fire and our floor has been off-limits since November 2. We do not know when we will be able to re-enter the floor and because of my apartment’s proximity to the fire, my equipment is most likely destroyed.

I want to report my equipment as destroyed and I’ve attached the DC city fire report. I also have a copy of an environmental report saying the floor is off-limits due to asbestos sampling. I was told over the phone with Comcast support that you would be able to help me, as it is not easy for me to reach DC’s Comcast office.

My account number: [omitted]
Name: Ben Turner

Please let me know if there’s anything else you need for fulfilling this request.

Thank you for your time,
-Ben

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
date Fri, Dec 3, 2010 at 12:24 PM
subject Out of Office AutoReply: fire report for comcast equipment

All,

I will be out of the office Friday 12.3.10.

Please forward your request to:
Tri-DC_Collections_@cable.comcast.com

Have a Comcastic Day!
[omitted]

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
<[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Sat, Dec 4, 2010 at 5:38 PM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

Mr. Turner on behalf of [omitted] who is out of the office, we are in receipt of your correspondence. We would like to first express sadness in the lost of your home. I have reviewed your account and see that all services have been stopped. If in fact the cable equipment has been damaged in the fire we can only assume that the insurance company will be reimbursing you for your contents. The normal process is to provide you the cost of your equipment so that your insurance company can include this in the estimate of loss. We will add the equipment charges on your account and forward a bill to you. Thank you for providing us with the necessary information needed to implement proper procedure in handling this devastating situation Please provide a forwarding address.

Thank you,
[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

from Ben Turner
to <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
<[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Sun, Dec 5, 2010 at 10:35 AM
subject Re: fire report for comcast equipment

[omitted],

Thank you for your response. I did not have renter’s insurance. Does this mean that I will be paying your bill for the equipment out of pocket?

Thanks for your concern,
-Ben

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
date Sun, Dec 5, 2010 at 10:35 AM
subject Out of Office AutoReply: fire report for comcast equipment

I am currently out of the office. I will return on Monday, Dec 6th.
Please forward your emails to:
Tri-DC_collections_@cable.comcast.com

Have a Wonderful Thanksgiving!

from Ben Turner
to <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
<[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 2:05 PM
subject Re: fire report for comcast equipment

Hi,

I just want to follow-up on this issue so I can get it resolved one way or another. Will I be paying this bill out of pocket?

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
date Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 2:05 PM
subject Out of Office AutoReply: fire report for comcast equipment

All,

I will be out of the office Tuesday 12.7.10 and Wednesday 12.8.10. I will return on Thursday 12.9.10..

Please forward your request to:
Tri-DC_Collections_@cable.comcast.com

Have a Comcastic Day!
[omitted]

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
<[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 3:09 PM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

I’m sorry Mr. Turner, Yes sir. I will have the equipment posted to the account and send you a copy once the account
has updated.
Thanks,
[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

from Ben Turner
to <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 4:05 PM
subject Re: fire report for comcast equipment

[omitted],

I was told by a Comcast support person on the phone that if I submitted a fire report from the city indicating that there was a fire in my building (which was a) not in my apartment and b) accidental), then I would be able to get charges removed for the equipment.

Is this not accurate?

I also did not have renter’s insurance.

-Ben

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
<[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 4:20 PM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

Mr. Turner I have been an employee for many years and never heard of that policy. I will need to check with a couple of Managers to see if that is the case. Please be assured that if I will work for your best interest.

[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Fri, Dec 10, 2010 at 10:33 AM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

Good morning Mr. Turner. Let me take this opportunity to apologize for you being misinformed. I have spoken with my Director and been informed that the equipment which was damaged in your home is in fact, your responsibility. I will move forward with the original plan to send you a copy of the bill once the equipment has been posted to your account and updated.

Thanks,
[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

from Ben Turner
to <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Fri, Dec 10, 2010 at 11:13 AM
subject Re: fire report for comcast equipment

[omitted],

Just to clarify, if I am able to sift through the remains of all my material belongings and find your valuable Comcast equipment and return it to your DC office, will my charges be removed? I have not been able to go in to my apartment (since Nov. 2).

-Ben

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
cc <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
date Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 6:01 PM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

Hello Mr. Turner, the equipment charges will only be credit if the equipment is not damaged and electronically operational.

Thank you,
[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

from Ben Turner
to <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>,
tips@consumerist.com,
brian_roberts@comcast.com
date Wed, Dec 15, 2010 at 7:44 AM
subject Re: fire report for comcast equipment

[omitted],

Thank you for the clarification.

I know you may not like being put in the position of being the one to tell someone whose apartment was rendered unlivable that he is responsible for paying for equipment damaged through no fault of his own, so this is not personal. Please forward to the appropriate Comcast entities (like PR, etc.). I do think you were professional in your correspondence, so thank you for that.

But I think Comcast’s policy on this is alienating and customer-hostile, and is part of the reason why no one will ever take the “Comcast cares” campaign seriously. It is why Comcast is rated the worst company in the U.S. according to Consumerist: http://www.myfoxphilly.com/dpps/news/comcast-named-worst-company-in-america-dpgoh-20100427-fc_7257407

I would like to receive my bill ASAP so I can pay immediately, as I am contractually obligated to. Not because I want to give Comcast more money, but because I need to move on with my life. Unfortunately I am not a for-profit entity that only worries about my bottom line.

I think it is sad that I WANT to switch to another provider to avoid paying Comcast more, but FiOS is not available where I live yet. I signed up for their email list for when service DOES become available. I will switch in a heartbeat.

Since I have no other choice, I DID sign up for new Comcast service, AND I am now paying you for MORE services (I added HD DVR). It is sad that I have been a customer of yours for many, many years, and I am now paying for more services than ever, yet there is still no flexibility on returning equipment that was destroyed through no fault of my own!

Lesson learned: always have renter’s insurance so the company and the insurance company can slug it out, while leaving the customer alone!

Merry Comcastic Christmas,
-Ben

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
date Wed, Dec 15, 2010 at 7:44 AM
subject Out of Office AutoReply: fire report for comcast equipment

Happy Holiday’s!

I will be out of the office Tuesday 12.14.10.
Please forward your request to:
Tri-DC_Collections_@cable.comcast.com

Have a Comcastic Day!
[omitted]

from <[omitted]@cable.comcast.com>
to Ben Turner
date Wed, Dec 15, 2010 at 5:17 PM
subject RE: fire report for comcast equipment

Mr. Turner, again I must apologize for this unfortunate situation. Thank you for your patience and understanding. I have mailed you a billing statement with a explanation of the charges. If I can be of further assistance or you require additional information, please contact me.

[omitted]
Regional Collections Support
[omitted]-Desk
[omitted]-Fax

So to sum up, I still haven’t received my bill yet. I have new Comcast service…sorry, XFINITY service, at my new place. And these folks are out of the office a lot. And finally, don’t let anybody tell you Comcast doesn’t care about customer service.

Merry Comcastic Christmas everybody!

HBO's Hard Knocks

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

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

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

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

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

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5672666600082232557#

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EALUebUCZe0

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-AceNYXYok

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Health Care Debate

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

Tea Party Rally (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abortion

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

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

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

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

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

Big Weekend

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

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

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

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

Here Comes the Opinion

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

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

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

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

History_of_US_flags_med

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

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

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

A Revised Mission Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama:  #1 A, #2 B, #3 C, #4 D

California:  #1 C, #2 B, #3 A, #4 D

Texas:  #1 D, #2 B, #3 A, #4 C

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

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

Some Final Points

Health Care Chickenhawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slack-Jawed Ideologues

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

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

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

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

Business

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

Competition

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

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

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

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

Balance of Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Surpluses and Shortages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job Hunting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.