Loyalty

During my brief lifetime, the US has enjoyed unchallenged dominance on the world stage.  Indeed, the US and patriotism are used together so often that, at least to an American, it sounds weird to hear the word “patriotism” used to refer to any other country.

I’m a patriotic person as well as a veteran and I constantly internally explore the meaning of patriotism, and by extension, loyalty.  Patriotism to me very rarely looks like patriotism does to, say, Trump, or to Obama even.  It doesn’t look like Red State patriotism, and it doesn’t look like non-veteran patriotism.  I’ll generally find more kinship with veterans, but even a lot of the time I’ll disagree with them on what patriotism should mean.

One thing I’m fascinated with is what peoples’ loyalties would look like if the US were not so dominant.  In particular, what would loyalties look like if the US fell far from its leadership position?  I think that most would say they would still love their country and defend it even if it fell in prominence.  But would they?

I’ve been living in DC and NYC for the last 9 years.  Most of my classmates, and probably coworkers, are fairly cosmopolitan.  Most of the Georgetown set are well-off and enjoy gilded lives.  They tend to focus on large-scale issues and organizations whereas a lot of folks in NYC I know have old money too, but they tend not to be as world-minded.

These DC and NYC people are the people on Instagram you always see traveling to exotic countries to help people, by way of fancy hotels and safaris and whatever else.  They’re people who seamlessly transfer from one city-state to another because, if you’re well-off enough, every city provides safety and comfortable living.  These people are politically interested, and activist where it makes sense, and so you might think they would be the most empowered to retain patriotism in the face of adversity.

But I wonder if these people would be the first to leave, the first to flee, the first to criticize how things are and take flight to other places, because they are sad to see how the state of things has deteriorated.  How this place they were patriotic about no longer represents what they believed in.  We didn’t leave the party, the party left us.  Because they have such mobility and freedom, giving up allegiance comes with virtually no disadvantages.  Ex-pat culture is a massive thing now.  What does the Brexit event mean in light of all this, with the city-state of London desiring to stay, while the rest of England wanted to leave?  Toned-down nationalism and the promise of pan-European unity did not reward around half of the population evidently.

Studies of Russian patriotism are perhaps instructive because they already lost a lot of their dominance on the world stage, and while, by geopolitical position, they will always be a significant force, a lot of Russia experts would say one of the defining traits of Russia is its wounded pride.

As a veteran I’m well aware of the fact that for the most part, US military strength overwhelms its opponents.  Sure, we have recently settled with giving up our overwhelming advantages by engaging in costly urban and asymmetric warfare, but for the most part, every military unit has been turned into a force multiplier by nature of training and technology.  What would it feel like to be part of a military that was not the biggest, baddest dog in the pound?  What if your squad or unit literally faced annihilation every day by a superior force?  Would you still be volunteering to serve?  The current calculus of gilding your resume would shift.

Religious faith and fealty to family are also receding.  For the most part I think this is a good thing, especially given the explosive investigations that people in power in the church and popular media exposure of abusive households during my lifetime has flipped the script.

Work for millennials and people my age does not encourage long-term stints with the same employer.  Not only do you generally only enjoy raises and promotions only when you change jobs, employers are also less likely to internally promote unless it’s a specific policy decision they’ve made.

So in no way is one rewarded for being loyal or patriotic these days.  It makes even less sense if you don’t live in the US.  With the Olympics set to begin soon in Rio, it’s often the only time some countries display overt national pride other than, say, World Cup?

I don’t really watch The Walking Dead but my wife does.  What interests me I guess is that communities of like-minded people in these post-apocalyptic worlds form and square off against each other.  Racial ties probably are strongest.  Bandwagoning towards the strongest leader would be the next strongest perhaps.  Religion?  Maybe nationality?

The Walking Dead hints at but doesn’t quite explain fully what its estimate is for how quickly we as a society would devolve from an orderly system to every person for himself.  Would it take you a month before you gave up on any hope for a return of order, before you started to choose a faction?  Just for your own safety until people started to figure out relative strengths between groups?

I know no one else enjoyed the film A.I., but Teddy is perhaps one of my favorite all-time film characters and the betrayal of humans towards the androids they created is just so compelling and painful a subject for what will likely happen to us when we begin co-existing with computers that it’s chilling to me to see the film.

David’s programming and state as a young child is in conflict with his role in his family and so his actions become suspicious and scary to the family, particularly when the real son manipulates David into doing things that alienate their parents.

I enjoyed Fallout’s storyline regarding androids and humans, with the rift generating two different factions, The Brotherhood (those who sought to remove technology from public availability and hoard it for themselves, for everyone’s good) and the Railroad, who sought to smuggle androids to safety.

It’s true that loyalty can lead to cruelty towards outsiders and xenophobia.  But lack of loyalty, or lack of attachment to anything, leads to disengagement, a common complaint for American voting habits and politics at this point.

I’m definitely a hometown sports fan.  I don’t like bandwagoners and I respect sports fans a lot more if they root for teams in cities that they live or lived in.  I once knew a guy — Cowboys fan, Lakers fan, Yankees fan.  Infuriating.  It’s almost though you can’t trust someone who doesn’t even root for his hometown teams.

There was a problem connecting to Twitter.

Maybe the smell test here is if you’re not loyal to something, or have faith, or take a stand on something or have an opinion, then where can other people decide that you stand on anything.  Seriously, if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything, right?

A common trope also is that for those who are loyal, they are seen as weak and predictable — the Joker loves to take advantage of Batman in this way, but where I see it happen the most in real life is in bias committed against veterans.  It’s the idea that people shrug and give lip service to “supporting the troops”, but then if they don’t like a veteran, the person becomes a bona fide PTSD case: on the edge, ready to snap, probably suicidal, a lost cause.  This is where what you’ve stood for and sacrificed for becomes weaponized against you.  Your beliefs and your actions, generally done in service to others, becomes a negative upon you.

The other side is conformity, right?  If you don’t swear fealty, then you must be removed.  If you’re not with us, you’re against us.  It’s such a thin line, loyalty.

All this stuff is interesting to me, and perhaps because it becomes so prominent during election campaigns, that’s why I tend to write about these things every 4 years.

I certainly get why Asian-Americans, of which I consider myself a member, have parents who immigrated to the US and kept a low profile and tried to work hard and stay out of trouble.  If you’ve existed in a world where people turn on each other, question each others’ loyalties, and judge each other based on those sorts of qualities, it would be desirable to leave all that, try to raise your family, and not draw any undue attention to yourself.  As a soon-to-be father I appreciate that more and more, particularly as I also think about my career and what actions I would take in the future.

I guess I don’t have a particular point to make about all this, but these emotions people have are latent, powerful forces.  If a certain set of people no longer displays these emotions or ascribes them to common causes, where will that emotion and loyalty show itself in the future?  Does it put us in danger to just assume that the dampening of nationalism necessarily means a general sense of acceptance to a global common cause?

I doubt it.

A Trendsmap.com Look at the World

I like to do this periodically.  Sometimes you get more interesting results than other times.  This time I figured I’d do a quick and dirty stitching of the entire Trendsmap map.  In no way is it complete, but it’s still cool, and kinda beautiful. (click it to get the full-sized version)  More importantly, and this is the MSFSer in me, it’s kind of neat to see how tweets can be incredibly regional — even though I follow like 3k people on Twitter, almost none of them tweet in a foreign language or from non-western states.  It’s a reality check, at least a geographical one, if looking at Twitter can be seen as such.

I think there are some incorrectly geolocated keywords because I increased the browser size to 5k pixels across 3 screens and maybe the tag locations weren’t updated.

The Trendsmap blog also has some cool viz’s of world cities:

Easy:

And less obvious:

What to Read in International Affairs

I just left my old job, which was to read endless open-source articles online in the mainstream, on blogs, on Twitter, in discussion forums, whatever.

One thing that was awesome about the job was learning how the news cycle works.  You’re able to see how stories develop and how they take hold on the public.  You’re able to see how the news is manipulated.  You can see who finds stuff first, who curates the news best, who is always late to the party, who gets things wrong consistently over time.  Most excitingly, you see how much crowdsourcing is contributing to the news cycle now.

Being an international relations (IR) wonk, then, what I crave when I’m looking for news is an inside scoop from people who are close to those who affect events.  By the time it reaches the major newspapers, it’s not much of a story anymore.  Although the New York Times is still the absolute best when it comes to learning about why a story is important.  Some people like to read stuff like Before It’s News but they have too much user-submitted garbage.  I’ve found that 4chan and reddit catch stuff the fastest most often these days.  Huffington Post usually almost always has the most discussion about a topic but can have some pretty stupid comments.

So for those of you who love IR, especially for incoming students to Georgetown’s Master’s of Science in Foreign Service program, here’s what I recommend reading:


Major News Sites:

NYTimes’ The Lede Blog (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/)

This is where the NYT develops on-going stories.  They have a ton of blogs for different topics but this one deals with whatever the big stories are, along with added social media, discussion, and NYT’s superior curated commenting system.

Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report (http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/)

Just found this one.  Provides some very good contextualized news on what’s going on in China, which usually exists in the news world behind a black see-through veneer of American stereotypes.

AOLNews (http://www.aolnews.com/)

AOL apparently hired a lot of freelancers to write up news, and I have to say they’re a pretty reliable crew at finding more context at reporting under-rated news stories that are being talked about a lot but don’t respond to specific news events.

ABCNews’ The Blotter (http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/)

Brian Ross’s project used to break a lot of details for terrorism-related incidents.

Foreign Policy Passport (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/)

The editors of Foreign Policy cover pretty thoroughly just about any IR story.


Blogs:

Borderland Beat (http://www.borderlandbeat.com/)

This blog is supposedly made up of a group of anonymous folks reporting from Mexico — while Mexican newspapers usually get the initial stories out quick, Borderland Beat usually follows up later with (very gruesome) photos and more context into what’s actually going on in the massive gun battles and violence between drug cartels in Mexico and the Mexican security forces.  This is probably the #1 story not being represented well enough in the US.  Borderland Beat makes sure it’s right in your face.

Also see Border Reporter (http://borderreporter.com/).

Thomas Ricks’ The Best Defense (http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/)

Author of two of the best Iraq books out there, Ricks writes for Foreign Policy and has recently been posting soldiers’ and soldiers’ families letters from the disaster in Wanat.

The Jawa Report (http://mypetjawa.mu.nu/)

Tracks jihadis in the news and in social networking/media.  Finds a surprising number of wannabe jihadist hacks within the US!


Social Media/Other

STRATFOR (http://www.stratfor.com/)

Austin-based open source intel outfit with a strong leaning towards the importance of geostrategy and geopolitics in understanding the motivations behind different countries.  Consistently awesome.

NYkrinDC (https://twitter.com/NYkrinDC/)

Follow this dude on Twitter.  He posts a ton of news links daily related to international relations and security.

Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet (http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheat-sheet/)

Sign up for the newsletter.  FP’s has gotten too long.  This one gives you the key headlines and important blurbs for the top 5 stories their editor has chosen (which I often concur with).  Love reading this right as I get up every morning.  Always feel prepared for the whole news day after quickly scanning this.


Books

George Friedman, “The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century”

Looks at demographics and geopolitics to determine outcomes.  Sees Japan, Turkey, and Mexico as the US’s looming IR challenges.  Sees immigration and Mexico border as key US priorities.  What I like best, but most people think is silly, is his extrapolating of future warfare:  American battle stars, robot swarms, control of space and communications.

Sebastian Mallaby, “The World’s Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations”

A biography of James Wolfensohn’s time as president at the World Bank and also an important primer on how the World Bank affects the world.

Samuel Huntington, “The Third Wave:  Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”

Huntington is a mensch in IR.  This book argues that democratization has occurred in 3 waves so far, and even hints that we may be in a retrenching right now (each wave has an anti-wave).  I read this book for my comparative democratization class, which was awesome.

Robert Baer, “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower”

Baer argues that Iran has been building up its regional power and, after the US unleashed the Shi’ites within Iraq, now has growing influence over the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the Gulf states, Iraq, and its borders with Afghanistan.  Which, as we fight Sunni extremists, makes one wonder, why aren’t we working WITH Iran?

Walter Russell Mead, “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World”

Mead counters the idea that America has had a very immature history in its foreign relations.  One of the best books I never had to read for any class (but others had it assigned), it helps you see American IR in terms of American schools of thought:  Jeffersonians (limited govt, more isolationist), Hamiltonians (free trade), Wilsonians (activist, progressive involvement abroad for high ideals), and Jacksonians (war hawks, fiercely nationalistic).  I swear you won’t see the US the same after this book.

Andrew Bacevich, “The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism”

Bacevich addresses three concerns:  American fiscal profligacy (massive budget deficits), the “voluntary” military that detaches the public from civic responsibility, and weak leadership where each President has decided not to tackle the hard issues and instead continues our spending binge (Carter being the closest to address it, but being smacked down hard, as Reagan’s election showed).  Depressing book.  Is the fable of American leadership just a myth?

Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”

Klein argues that the west has used the shock doctrine as a new form of exploiting weaker countries by privatizing public institutions and starving funding, and by using Washington Consensus monetary policies as bailouts in economies under attack, so that privatized systems can be put in their place afterwards.

Michael Mandelbaum, “The Case for Goliath:  How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century”

Mandelbaum argues that the US offers the world a public good — international defense — and so therefore complaints about its military spending and presence worldwide are overlooking the benefits gained from having the US control most international waters, global trade, and currency.

Ray Takeyh, “Hidden Iran:  Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic”

This book helped me understand Iran’s political structure far better.

Mark Leonard, “What Does China Think?”

Same as Takeyh’s book, but for China.  Quotes many of China’s top IR thinkers to see how they view the world from their perspective.

Parag Khanna, “The Second World:  How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century”

Khanna graduated from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.  I think some of his analyses are breezy, but I like that he gives a quick glimpse at all the bigger second-world countries that most people overlook but have the potential to affect regional behaviors.


Tools

WizardRSS (http://www.wizardrss.com/)

Know how some RSS feeds only display a blurb from their updates?  WizardRSS gives you a feed URL with the full bodies of updates.  Thank God.  And you are using Google Reader, right?  Please say yes.


Have Additions?

A lot of the above is influenced (if not published) by the Council on Foreign Relations.  That may introduce significant bias but they are also heavyweights of serious (and in my opinion, balanced) IR thought.

I will add more stuff to this post as I find it, and I’m of course curious to hear what you’d recommend!

Reorienting National Security Priorities

Below is my plan for reorienting American security priorities, which I think are currently misaligned, often conflicting, and outdated.  This is not a plan for innovation, or financial reform (which is one of the most pressing national issues), or for progressivism.  It’s a plan to increase the long-term durability of homeland security.

Politics, as I’ve learned in my brief 2 years here in DC, is something too complex for me to understand within the realms of my attention span.  What may seem like a good (or even easy) idea to implement has to be palatable to the seething mass that is Congress, and must please interest groups, and must come at an opportune time.  The horse trading, budget proposals and approvals, and distortions that are involved in any federal level issue are over my head.  That alone is part of the reason I’m inclined to start up a small business one day and avoid such bureaucratic nightmares.

Also with regards to politics, President Obama’s style appears to be to go out of his way to allow affected parties to kibbitz and argue and debate an issue until consensus is reached.  This is frustratingly evident for the Commander-in-Chief’s wait-and-see attitude towards the Afghanistan run-offs and having Afghanistan as a credible partner before deciding what to do next with troop levels.  It should not take a national debate to know that 1) any general in charge will press for continued war in Afghanistan and 2) Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

My thoughts on President Obama’s style are that his job as an executive is not to dither (as Cheney would say), but to be a decider (as Bush the Younger would say). (that said, Cheney could have benefited from being more of a ditherer while Bush the Younger could have been more thoughtful in his decidering)

President Obama’s waiting can be seen as weakness, lack of certitude (does he really need to consider whether gays should serve in the military openly?), and lack of leadership.  Leaders lead through making tough decisions quickly, firmly, yet cool-headedly.  In the military, we were taught as sergeants and even as junior enlisted that making a bad decision is better than making no decision at all.  President Obama is coming up on 9 months in office and the people are getting impatient.

After having witnessed how DC works, I’ve noticed that when an Administration puts its weight behind a policy, or puts more funding into a certain area, businesses and non-profits react swiftly and with commitment.  If President Obama said tomorrow we are moving to solar power, even energy companies would play ball.  Scouts would immediately be hitting the phones and pavement to come up with the best contract proposals to win that money.  The argument that the nation has to be “ready” for change seems more obstructionist than realistic to me.  America is and always will be an unabashedly capitalist country that passionately desires chasing and obtaining the money.

Complaints that an active executive branch seems like a command economy/government  are crying wolf — companies and non-profits have no problem immediately shifting priorities.  Why should the government be less adaptive, less competitive?  So this gives me hope that an executive who makes forthright decisions would succeed in implementing this plan, regardless of the politicking that would follow it.

With these things in mind, I’ve tried to think of ways in which a current President could push through using executive powers a plan that would be hard for even Congress to stall.

1) Gays in the Military. First, the Commander-in-Chief should dictate that LGBTs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) must be allowed to openly serve in the military.  This is justified to the Jacksonians by saying that we need all the talent and strength and volunteers we can get to fight today’s wars.  Once the word comes down, the heads of each service will find a way to implement the policy.  The “problem” of how to integrate LGBTs is not a reason to delay equal treatment of citizens willing to fight. [note:  it would be up to states to decide whether to allow gay marriages, correct?]

2) Universal Human Rights. Allowing gay servicemembers provides a well-publicized opening for which President Obama can reaffirm the American Dream for all people by promoting the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sure to please the Wilsonians (who are concerned with equality) and Jeffersonians (who are concerned with preserving individual freedoms and federalism).  Abroad, a nation that pugnaciously defends, once again, taking in your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, as the Statue of Liberty shouts forth, will be a siren call the way it used to be for people all over the world who believe in the idea of freedom and opportunity, of life, liberty, and happiness.

3) Ending “Wars”. The Commander-in-Chief should withdraw all occupation military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, thanking the military publicly for its professional service, but stating that America’s mission has changed and that he bears full responsibility for such a decision and no one else.  Programs and celebrations to re-integrate oft-deployed servicemembers back into society will strengthen long-stressed military families.

4) Drug Legalization. The President should legalize all drugs and fund rehab missions for addicts, heavily regulating drugs instead, including imports filtered from Afghanistan and south and central America.  This will cut the knees off drug cartels (Sinaloa, Juarez, La Familia) and enforcer organizations (Los Zetas) in Mexico, who are raising havoc for the Mexican government.

5) New Immigration Policy and Improved Border Security. President Obama, with fewer forces deployed, can focus his Department of Homeland Security and border resources towards an immigration policy that encourages highly-skilled immigrants to come to study, research, work, and live, and which allows more poor immigrants in than before, but with improved documentation.  The President should divert resources freed from Iraq and Afghanistan into helping secure Mexico both through a relaxed drug policy and through cooperative security to arrest drug cartel members.  Mexico is the soft underbelly of American superpower status and its well-being as a successful, secure, happy nation is in our national interest.  The Minute Men, who constitute a Jacksonian tradition in the southwest, should be lauded for their efforts in helping to watch the border, but with improved border security and accountability, their services won’t be needed as much and they can return to their normal lives.

6) Naval and Space Dominance. The Commander-in-Chief can re-assert the nation’s priority towards maintaining naval dominance.  The Commander-in-Chief and the President can look to the Earth’s orbit to assure future American dominance of outer space satellites and future space command platforms.  Much of the reason the US has gained global power is through its taking over full control over the seas from the British.  In the future, control of space will be of utmost importance to US commerce, intelligence, and security, as we are and will be heavily reliant on satellite observation and communication.  Hamiltonians will enjoy continued open-seas security for free trade, while the defense sector will enjoy moving into outer space for improved national security.  The US military will have a lighter footprint in sovereign nations, decreasing the threat of intractable insurgencies.

7) Downgrading Terrorism’s Priority. Terrorism as a long-term priority is not ranked high for the US internally, given the lack of proximity to terrorist-supporting failed nations.  However, its threat should be even more reduced once troops are redeployed from Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are considered backyards for the global insurgency.  Lacking a near enemy in the US, insurgents will turn to civil war and/or a problem for Iran, Russia, the Stans, India, and Pakistan.  Al-Qaeda will lose much of its rallying cry.  Just think:  could we return to days before the TSA security theater where we have to remove shoes, belts, and dignity at airports?

8) Energy Independence. American energy independence will further mollify Al-Qaeda’s support base.  Pouring money into solar power in particular, which comes to us in an infinite supply, must be our way forward.  Reduced reliance on foreign oil weans us off OPEC and in particular Saudi, an apostate kingdom as Al-Qaeda would refer to it.  Al-Qaeda sees Saudi as being propped up by America in order to be raped for its oil.  US independence from Saudi whim removes the US from the least-braindead of Al-Qaeda anti-American animus.

9) Make New Friends or Strengthen Old Friendships. Returning to being that of a more honest diplomatic broker of peace, the US can step up efforts to ally itself with key regional pivot powers like Iran, Japan,  and Turkey, who constitute influential geopolitical power upon large swathes of the globe.  Pakistan, where the real terrorist threat is, can be more of a priority for American security and diplomacy, since foreign fighters have been long supported by the Taliban and the Pakistani ISI.  It is in the US’s interest to decouple these organizations from Al-Qaeda, while at the same time helping Pakistan to secure its nuclear arsenal from political and physical instability.

The end result of all these moves is that we have a larger, more diverse population base of productive Americans and a fresh stream of immigrants to contribute to the innovation economy.  We have safer borders and a stronger base in North America.  We have fewer albatrosses around our neck so that walking softly and carrying a big stick, being an arsenal of democracy, will be in line with our modern national security priorities.  By downgrading terrorism as a priority, we force other nations to deal with their near-border insecurities, while improving our response to naval superiority, domestic terrorist investigations, immigration policy, and a decreasing drug war threat.

Is this possible politically?  The main problem is that these steps above, taken individually, would not make much sense.  But under an integrated strategy, these steps would make sense to all the political schools of thought that exist within the US.  The only people who would stand to lose from these moves are of course incumbent interests, such as defense contractors who profit from foreign wars, and the Republican party, which has lost its philosophical moorings and which functions right now as nothing more than obstructionists wanting President Obama to fail.

The irony is that the strategy above would actually appeal to fiscal conservatives and to social libertarians, since the wars would end, homeland security would reach less into our private lives, and federal agencies wouldn’t be so stressed for funding from supporting failing drug/terror/border security/diplomacy policies.  The conservatives would find their voice backed up by national policy.

And of course the progressives would benefit because they’ve also ended wars, reduced the pressures of the drug war in Mexico on immigration and jailing for drugs, and ensured a rhetoric of equality for all human beings.

As for the companies and Republicans, well, both will do what they’re supposed to do:  they will re-form around where the profit, financially and politically, is.

It is the American DNA to be fleet, adaptive, innovative, and competitive.  This is the security strategy to encourage that.

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.

Big, Interesting, Mysterious Pragmatic Problems

I’ve just finished a master’s program full of amazing classmates seeking policy solutions to some of the toughest problems the US and international institutions have to currently deal with.  For my part, I deeply love to spend a lot of my recreational thinking time searching for gaps in solutions to problems — entrepreneurial thinking — looking for where something is grossly inadequate and is in need of a better solution.

Better Left Unsaid?

There are certain wide swathes of areas of study that are ignored — and within them lurk many potential solutions.  I’ve gradually noticed some of these areas over the years of study and experience I’ve gathered in my life.  And I’ve often thought about why they remain ignored, and why the solutions, which some very smart people very clearly understand how to identify and implement, remain unused.

I’m reading The Wisdom of Whores:  Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS right now (thanks Kevin Donovan for lending it to me), and its author, Elizabeth Pisani (see her blog on the subject), talks about why HIV/AIDS continue to thrive.  One of the main problems is that we refuse to talk about sex realistically.  We refuse to talk about, as she says, how certain men dress as women and think of themselves as women, how young unmarried women are often more at risk for HIV/AIDS than young unmarried men, how adultery and multiple sexual partners are fairly common all around the world.  Certainly we have not been helped by Ms. Beetroot in South Africa or by George Bush’s insipid abstinence policy for Africa instead of more condom usage.

What Pisani calls it is a problem of taboos.

Taboos Make Us Act Dumb

There must be some sort of linkage between massive societal problems and taboos, because many of the gaps I’ve come across have, in some part, to do with deep cultural taboos.  Taboos around certain issues, like sex and drugs and economics, cause individuals and their government representatives and their communities to ignore debate — what comes out of that perversity is things like bars in Tokyo where Japanese businessmen go into a mock subway car and feel up girls in schoolgirl outfits, or massive failures in counter-narcotic policies, or the idea in some areas of Africa that condoms actually give you AIDS.

I remember a poignant moment when I went to New York City as part of Georgetown MSFS’s NYC alumni trip.  We went to a bar for my birthday and one of my friends brought a guest, some young girl who didn’t really seem that clued in.  We asked what she did for a living and she snootily said that she worked in “collateralized debt obligations”, spoken in such a way that we were stupid if we didn’t know what they were.  Such a phrase didn’t belong to the person speaking it (which might be a little stereotypical, I know), but as it turns out I’m willing to bet she’s out of a job right now and probably never understood the underlying securities.  I just think of that moment for its essence of cognitive dissonance and how no one understood how real estate was booming without underlying income and assets to support it.

As part of my Yahoo!/ISD research, I proposed an openness/closedness model, wherein the nexus was transparency.  Within the realm of health, a society can choose to be very closed, leading to rampant STD prevalence and incidence and cultures of distrust and adultery and secrecy, or it can choose to be very open, in which case it loses much of the meaning of intimate and long-lasting relationships and is prone to gossip (when those who are very open are criticized by those who aren’t as much so).  A third way is institutional and societal transparency, leading to public health initiatives (i.e. civic responsibility over personal privacy in order to increase general health).

Thinking in this way, here are some other massive existing problems I’ve always wondered about.  Most of them have their own inflection points that are seared into my head for one reason or another.  My spidey sense kicks in and asks, “Why did this person react so strongly to this topic?  Why is a topic very intensely studied EXCEPT for this certain area?”  What are the cultural taboos lurking underneath these large-scale societal issues?

Job Hiring and Human Resources

This one is near and dear to my heart right now, since I’m unemployed and looking for work.

Despite services like headhunters, monster.com, et al, the entire job hiring process is completely broken.  Here’s how it generally works.

A job listing is posted on the organization’s web site.  The organization receives maybe hundreds of resumes, cover letters, and all the other junk that recruiters ask for.  The recruiter chooses the most promising candidates for interviews and then after an interview, the recruiter and team picks the best person.  Sounds fine, right?

But what really happens is that some overworked manager at work needs to recruit someone, so he writes up this long listing with completely unrealistic job requirements, like “20 years experience in Swaziland and Indonesia, 15 years executive experience, for free summer internship”.  In fact, someone could probably get a lot of traffic with a blog that tracks the most audacious, ridiculous job listings on the market.

On top of this listing, what one needs to do is apply, and that turns into a whole game unto itself.  If you’re lucky, all you need to do is send your resume to an e-mail address.  The more onerous ones ask for a cover letter, which seems to me to be an exercise in redundancy, since your resume should be enough to warrant interest.  The worst hiring mechanisms are in larger organizations, which ask for short-answer or essay responses.  Or you might upload your resume (which is fine), but then the server software tries to parse your resume and then you have to fill in these laborious form fields so that your data fits in this organization’s database.  The worst system perhaps exists in Avue Digital Services, a contractor’s system used by a lot of government agencies.  You should really check this web site out.  It looks like it’s from 1998.  I applied for one job at USAID and I literally had to click on options about how extensive my experience with “formulating a plan and carrying it out” and THEN had to fill out a textbox fleshing out the details behind it.  And this was repeated for 10 other questions.

Keep in mind that if you want to take this process seriously, it will likely take you several hours to complete.  And also keep in mind that you’re not even likely to get any sort of response for all your work!

That is another peccadillo of mine:  people who don’t have the courtesy to respond, even if just to say “no”.  Obviously people are overworked and busy enough as it is, but how does one know whether to follow up or give up if they don’t even get a form letter denial?  This is professionally lazy.

I have a bunch of unemployed friends right now and they are brilliant.  But there’s no entry path into organizations.  A smart organization would put a lot of money into entry-level pipeline programs for training, because there’s few jobs where someone is actually going to come in and be fully-trained for their job.  (Chemonics International and the World Bank seem to have these sorts of programs — kudos to them.  Anyone else you’ve found?)

Thus you get these ridiculous requirements in job listings, posted by people who don’t really know what their organization needs, sent to people who have to send out more and more resumes just to get one organization that responds to them.  The whole system is burdened and, in short, completely broken.

All that said, smart people know that you don’t really get jobs by going on monster.com or through job listings.  The best jobs come through your weak ties and social networks.  But doesn’t this sidestep the great advantages the internet offers in terms of matching up interests and human capital?

It is 2009 and we still don’t have online standardization for job hunting.  LinkedIn has a wonderful system that is essentially an online resume with social networking.  But why doesn’t Reid Hoffman, if he’s so brilliant, push LinkedIn as a standard resume system?  Why do we have these bizarre artifacts like tailored resumes that have to be in Word format?  We do we have artifacts like a resume flood where only a few people are even notified that their resume was acknowledged?  Why isn’t there a system that tracks which places you’ve applied to, when you applied to them, and what the results were in an open system?

The answer is that it’s all taboo.  Companies don’t know what they really need in new hires.  People can’t share salary details because people don’t want to know that they might get fleeced, and companies prefer the information asymmetry.  Those on the job market aren’t quite sure what skills they need to get jobs because they know that in their jobs, the “skills” are often complete nonsense.  Opaqueness is the name of the game — don’t let anyone on to the fact that you have no clue what’s going on.

It really is a wonder that organizations are able to make money.  I dream of the day when I get to do hiring as part of my job as a founder — I would, in a heartbeat, volunteer my company to be part of a network of organizations that agree to use an open, transparent hiring system.

Altruism and Non-GDP Labor

I took a biology class in college which stood out in mind for its professor who was keenly interested in making sure we understood the most sweeping, important ideas within the field.  In particular, he spoke pointedly about the concept of altruism in nature, so much that I think he might have even devoted a whole lecture to it.  He spoke about whether there are examples of altruism in nature and whether that altruism was ultimately self-interest or if it was genuine.

The attention he gave to that topic signified its importance to me.  But having grown up in a fairly mercantilist Dallas, and in particular the ultra-competitive suburb of Plano, and then bearing witness to the high-flying dotcom boom and the era of Greenspan and Reagan and trickle-down economics, altruism has been a topic suspiciously ignored and avoided in much of the literature I’ve read.

Something has changed since the dotcom bubble collapsed.  The massive drop in costs for storage, bandwidth, and processing has made information dissemination and creation go exponential.  Freemium (offering most of your services for free while charging for premium features) is a viable business model, collaborative projects like open source Linux and Wikipedia are a normal part of our innovation ecosystem, and the “gift economy” is no longer fantasy.  Check out this article on the altruism in economics.

Greenspan infamously admitted there were flaws in his theory, and Reaganomics have gone dormant.  Now The Economist is worried about big government (its latest cover signals the magazine’s shift from averting financial collapse to anti-government economic conservatism, as if those are either/or states).  The neo-cons have gone dormant as well.

This is allowing for more integrative economic theories to be debated and explored — the outcome will be some mix of purely economic labor (i.e. going to work and earning a salary) and social capital wealth (fostering your strong and weak ties) and incorporating household labor (cleaning the house, taking care of family) into statistics about overall wealth.

You can see the taboo in this area in how economic growth used to be calculated:  gross domestic product per capita.  This is a crude measurement of overall GDP divided by population, ignorant of massive socio-economic divides or other measures of well-being.

But the Human Development Index has gained traction.  On top of GDP/capita, it also includes statistics on literacy and life expectancy.  This is a closer approximate to tracking a realistic, sustainable snapshot of human life.  In fact, one might even call it an attempt to measure happiness (in the past, happiness was just how much money you earned, according to economists).  Bhutan has taken a radical approach — it’s made happiness a national measurement.

“Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.”

Economic theory is the real story of the 20th century.  The advent of Marxism and Communism vs. Capitalism, the Keynesian economic school that led to Friedmanism and a collapse of financial institutions in the United States (1929 and eventually 2007).  Why are economists, who are given so much control over policy, unable to break the taboo of non-monetary labor?

For more, read Clive Hamilton’s “Growth Fetish”.  Some choice quotes:

“As Andre Gorz has observed, ‘Socialism may … be understood as the positive response to the disintegration of social bonds ensuing from the commodity and competitive relations characteristic of capitalism.’  Eudemonism too is motivated by an understanding of the corrosive effects of capitalism on social bonds, but it differs in two respects.  First, it attributes this erosion of social bonds not so much to the depredations of the capital-worker relationship but to the social disintegration associated with excessive consumption in the marketing society.  Second the problem of capitalism is not only the disintegration of social bonds but also the loss of self that characterises the marketing society.  We need to recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies, societies ‘in which the unity of work and life, of society and community, of the individual and the collective, of culture and politics, of economy and morality, is re-established; in which the functional requirements of the system coincide with the aims of everyone, and the meaning of each person’s life coincides with the meaning of History.”

“Becker defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments.  In other words, people marry in order to more efficiently produce ‘household commodities’, including ‘the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status’.  The marriage decision is therefore based on quantifiable costs and benefits.

“He defined love as ‘a non-marketable household commodity’, noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of ‘policing’ the marriage.  Policing is needed ‘in any partnership or corporation’ because it ‘reduces the probability that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium in the marriage market.”

Those organizations and companies that seek to promote the value of activities and social goods other than those goods and services produced and paid for will be the big winners in the next century.  Who is tackling these issues?  Read Kevin Kelly’s latest primer on the subject of the global collectivist society.

Human Capital and Social Capital

Facebook I believe is one of those companies.  While Facebook still has a tinge of triteness in the minds of many, I think what it is doing will help to define our coming networked information economy, to use Yochai Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks” term.

Facebook is building a standardized international system for maintaining our pre-existing social capital and expanding upon it.  Social capital is roughly measured by the number of your contacts, weak or strong (weak ties are acquaintances or co-workers while strong ties are your friends and family), and the level of interaction you have among them and your ability to bring your different nodes of interaction together.  Essentially this is what you are doing on Facebook when you’re having conversations with all your friends in one location (your wall).

Human capital focuses more on things like education level and health care and nutrition, the fundamental building blocks which allow us to achieve more parts of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (further discussion of Maslow suggest that you don’t need to have all the lower levels on the hierarchy of needs to reach self-actualization — you can have different combinations).

I bring up human and social capital because they are deeply awash in taboo.  People react violently to sharing their data online, because they are terrified of accountability and misuse and the idea that you can game human interaction.  Ask girls you know what they think about Neil Strauss’s “The Game”, a book that describes a community of men who figured out that if they wore attention-grabbing ornamentation to a club and said certain things to ladies at a bar, they could get those ladies to do just about anything they wanted while there, including “number-closing” or getting a girl to give you her number.

No one wants to think of human relationships as so base and simplistic, particularly when it comes to her OWN relationships.  Everyone wants to be complex.  But there are biological and social mechanisms that are intrinsic to how we interact.

The taboo that humans cannot be studied as though they are animals stops us from being able to understand ourselves, and thus we are exploited by reputation thieves, identity crooks, marketing projects, “players” and “hustlers”, et al.  We come up with imperfect systems like eHarmony to try to find us the perfect mate, and we use simplistic hiring systems to find jobs.

Good Governance and Strong Leadership

The international development discipline has gone through many fads in its attempts to systematically reduce worldwide poverty:  economic growth, education initiatives, public health, increased nutrition, food aid, import substitution, infrastructure projects, anti-corruption, institution-building, etc.

Naturally, flooding anything with money will lead to existing power structures siphoning that money away or just plain mismanaging it so that the end result looks nothing like how the project was intended on paper.  What you end up getting are things like warlordism (Somalia), clientelism (South America and much of the world), and simple corruption (everywhere).  Thus, you have people like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, development economists, who are saying that we’re wasting our money with “aid”, if it’s not accompanied with the proper incentives for all parties, and if it’s not held accountable to the recipients of aid (i.e. poor people and the citizenry) but only to the government.

I’ve just started a very interesting book my brother chose about Tokyo’s fish market, Tsukiji.  In it, the author, Theodore Bestor, has a disclaimer up front that anthropologists should stop being afraid to address power structures and economics — he notes that anthropologists abhor discussion of economics and economic systems, a sentiment I’ve noticed when I listen to my family talk about the two topics.  There is notable distaste between anthropologists and economists, even though I’ve always found both subjects fascinating and inextricably linked.

I studied international development as my concentration in my master’s program and very rarely does any of the literature talk about the importance of strong leaders except in a negative context, primarily for “big men” in Africa who ruled for multiple decades and ran their countries into the ground.  But if we’ve established that aid money is subject to graft, infrastructure projects are steered towards clients of the government, literacy is kept down to stop the citizenry from fighting back, and virtually all development initiatives can be co-opted, doesn’t that leave good governance as an important (but not the only) step?

And that’s where development stands now:  encourage strong institutions and good governance and a country’s government will start performing better for its citizens. But still, the issue of having a strong leader to push these programs through, even knocking down incumbent interests who will resist, is ignored.  It is a taboo topic.

Just look at what the CIA used to be obsessed with:  regime change and propping up friendly rulers.  The most taboo and secret people of all, our clandestine services, used to subvert governments worldwide.  They did it either to keep parts of the world so fractured that they couldn’t challenge the US or to bring in someone who would represent American interests.  And in that context, it worked pretty well.  We didn’t care if that country’s people were disenfranchised and thrown into poverty.  We didn’t care about internal civil societies or human capital.  We just wanted rulers who would do what we wanted them to.  End of story.  The CIA knew what was up.

It doesn’t seem as though there are many ways to birth, train, and promote a great leader like Gandhi or Churchill or Lincoln out of a lab or vacuum.  So how can development practitioners bring this about?  They can’t, really…at least, not that popular literature and research has uncovered.  Have you found anything?  The best thing seems to be leaving countries alone, forcing them to deal with their national identity and to have a natural process of finding leadership.  But this is not something we can spend millions of dollars on.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to be the best role model country on our own, to exemplify values we hope others have.  This solution does not provide practitioners with jobs.  So perhaps that is why there is a taboo about strong leadership in international development literature.

Personalities & Social Lubricants

One subject that has come to dominate my thoughts more and more over time is the importance of individual personalities.  This is somewhat linked to the strong leadership gap described in the last section, but specifically I am obsessed with the development of very interesting people.  I don’t care as much about how they got to where they are, but am most interested in the conditions and environment those people grew up in, and what decisions those people were faced with at critical junctions in their lives.  This is why I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” so much; he finds that successful people did not appear at a vacuum.  In many cases they were blessed with extraordinary opportunities that seemed mundane at the time but that gave them the time to become experts in their fields.

Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, etc.  These are remarkable human beings but they do not just settle on one thing in their lives.  They are pushing forward on new initiatives.  They’re not one-trick ponies.  They have stunning ability to motivate others to go further.  It’s these personalities that I don’t think get enough credit except for the fact that they are filthy rich.

It’s no secret that personalities sell — I appreciate the tabloids on that basis alone.  But the celebrity world of movies and music seems to be the only real vector for pushing personalities into the forefront.  It is not as though many other professions can hope for that level of fame, no matter how eccentric they are or how interesting their award-winning work is.

As far as I know, there’s really only one organization that seeks to build a network of particularly entrepreneurial individuals:  the Ashoka Foundation.  My impression is that the foundation takes entrepreneurial winners from different countries and then encourages them to become mentors for the next generation of social entrepreneurs from their country.  This talent-centric approach is at odds with venture capital and the public markets, which only care about the ideas, and more recently, only pay attention to entrepreneurship in business models.

I would much rather hire or invest in someone whose mind is abuzz with new ideas than fund one idea and hope that it pans out.  This is why talented individuals are so important.  Hire them, put them in a room together, and they will come up with absolutely brilliant stuff.  Why is this so hard?

Some might blame it on shareholders wanting to see short-term results.  Others see it as protecting an entrepreneur’s future revenue streams.  Both lame explanations.

What is a Taboo-Destroying Entrepreneur?

Part of being a social entrepreneur is helping solve societal problems.  But they are still problems for a reason.  It’s not because no one’s had a brilliant-enough idea.  It’s because of cultural taboos.  It’s because no one’s chosen to shatter a taboo into a bunch of different pieces and force people to see the truth underneath that taboo barrier.  So you could equate social entrepreneurship to shining a spotlight on a culture’s most embarrassing traits, the dirty little secrets that no one talks about regarding sex, drugs, black markets, relationships, bribery, and so on.   Social entrepreneurship is about destroying taboos.

Some more taboos.  Assuming we can just stop everyone from doing drugs or having sex has resulted in a failed abstinence program worldwide and a massively-defunct war on drugs that has turned Mexico and the pipeline countries of the drug trade into a bunch of city-states fighting cartels.  Nintendo crushed its competition by releasing a console, the Wii, that appealed to a bigger pie of people than just hardcore gamers.  What are we doing about our prison system, the costliest and most populace in the world?  Prisoners still manage to get cellphones and all the gear they need into jail, and terrorism and hardening of criminal behavior seem to actually thrive within the prison system that is supposed to rehabilitate them.  Prisoners easily even get drugs in prison!  Michael Lewis’s Moneyball showed how one statistician fought the commonly-held assumptions of how to recruit talent (i.e. hunch) and decided to let statistical analysis do the talking instead, resulting in a revaluation of which players should be signed and, although not yet, eventually a revaluation of salaries versus performance.  There are just so many examples of individuals having to fight the incumbent system to install what everyone should want:  something that more closely models reality.

Is the American Innovation Ecosystem Broken?

I am about done reading Judy Estrin’s “Closing the Innovation Gap:  Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy”, one of the best books talking about innovation out there.  One of the most poignant things Estrin brings up in the book is asking whether the US is not longer innovating as it should.  Estrin argues that even while dotcoms were all the rage and the web 2.0 community lifted off in the first decade of the 21st century, the underlying building blocks of the innovation ecosystem had gone stagnant.  Estrin doesn’t pull any punches for Bush the Younger for not improving education and immigration incentives, not funding the apolitical science foundations enough, etc.  She is worried that while things have the appearance of being good right now, the US is shutting down innovation-wise and countries like China are investing massive amounts of money into general research such that immigrants are no longer as likely to come to the US and stay afterwards to work.  What happens when we become exporters of information workers and not importers?

I’m not high-level enough to know how today’s situation compares to the past, since I’ve only spent limited time with master’s and PhD types and administrators at universities.  Georgetown has a pretty small endowment and even smaller for my program.  I’d like to think I’d be able to rally the alumni to bring money and attention back to MSFS later, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

I’ve read a bit about Harvard’s looming budget crisis for research and Estrin talks a bit about how PhD research is in danger of becoming a beauty pageant tailored towards whichever areas receive the most money and not where people are most interested in researching.

I’ve also had some trouble getting interest in my topic of interest, identity and reputation in the digital world, despite its being the next step for the online networked information economy.  There haven’t been any big IPOs lately and start-ups seem to be mostly dead-on-arrival ideas.  It’s a far cry from what was going on in 1995 online.  All the interesting stuff is lurking under the surface right now — and mainly in collaborative open source projects.  In other words, the internet’s development is back to underground communities because the public and private funding is not there.

Final Words

I just want to close with the sentiment, that despite my attempts to quantify human behavior, I do come from an anthropologist family and so therefore I do passionately enjoy reading about the peculiarities and eccentricities of different cultures and would never want those things to disappear.  What I do think, though, is that many people take advantage of other peoples’ lack of access to information and then they exploit that.  Such exploitation of power and information is substantially different from cultural and social community-level identities.  To make our societies more transparent, I argue, is to embrace our differences fully and bring them out so we can enjoy them.  Without taboos.

Going International to Become More American

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

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

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

Unavoidably American

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

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

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

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

Military Service

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

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

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

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

Georgetown

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

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

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

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

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

Against the Free Market Radicals

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

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

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

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

Chicken-Hawks

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

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

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

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

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

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

Service and Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Human Rights

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

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

American Exceptionalism is Made Up of Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusion vs. Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

De oppresso liber.

How to Move Forward

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

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

He went on to say,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Our House in Order

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

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

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

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

Reinvigorating USAID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recruitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea for a Georgetown MSFS Start-Up Fund

Hi.  I am currently a second-year student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University.  The program is housed within the School of Foreign Service, one of the best international affairs programs and international development programs in the world.  A list of alumni is at Wikipedia.

I am considering an idea to develop a start-up fund or foundation or some other type of organization within the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown that picks people, not ideas.

Start-Up Competitions

I have a problem with the way start-up competitions are run right now.  Currently, the model is that the best ideas are supposed to win.

But what often ends up happening is that the most previously successful or most monetizable “ideas” win.

That is, some competitions choose a beauty contest format, in which those who make the best business plan win.  This model is flawed, because business plans for early-stage ideas are usually full of made-up vapor numbers, and plans for later-stage companies are usually already financially successful or well on their way.  So of course the latter ideas make it while the earlier ones do not.  Sometimes having the best business plan just means the founder took a class in how to write a sexy, cosmetically-appealing one.  Hence, “beauty pageant”.

What can also happen is that the “ideas” selected in a contest just aren’t that compelling.  This comes from the obvious fact that if an idea was so brilliant, no one else would have thought of it before and probably wouldn’t understand the impact of the idea itself until it was proven.  Renting movies by mail?  A free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit?  A street-level Indian organization that lets streetkids dial in with their problems?  These things aren’t sustainable, monetizable, or realistic, right?

Wrong.  Netflix, Wikipedia, Childline.

Many final-round selectees are incremental improvements on marginally interesting/useful products that were already successful.  So funding these grinder ideas is not really selecting a “great idea” at all.  The biggest ideas can sometimes be “ah hah, that’s so easy!” ideas, but I think more often than not, the ideas that really change things do not make sense to people until much later.

And in fact I would go a step further and say that these paradigm-shift ideas do not occur in a vacuum.  They are the products of great minds.  Much is made of the professor at Stanford who passed not only on Yahoo! but on Google as well.  They weren’t obvious winners initially, but Brin and Page and Yang and Filo went on to do great things like Google.org.  Omidyar at eBay took an idea that people thought would fail against Amazon and has gone on to do philanthropy work.

People still don’t understand Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook but he has the potential to completely control the online social world.

So it is these people who envision what the future is going to look like…  It is not that they happened on an idea by luck and never innovated again.

So why do start-up competitions vote on ideas and not people?

Start-Up Competitions Judged by Start-Ups

I felt as though TechCrunch 50 was a pretty successful start-up contest.  It achieved success through collaboration and openness.  If I recall correctly, the top 50 ideas were voted in by the TechCrunch reader base.  This introduces some serious problems such as bandwagoning and successful block voting campaigns, but it might help to reduce the chaff.  It also doesn’t get rid of the “understanding bias”; a truly large idea may be misconstrued or misunderstood, or a bad idea may hide a truly gifted entrepreneur.

The top 50 ideas pitched their products live at a conference to a panel of serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, and people really knowledgeable in the start-up/web space.  All of this was beamed over the web, and the ideas had web pages put up with reviews of their products.  The feedback was given to them by the panels and through online comments.

Start-Up Literature

What’s funny is a lot of the start-up literature out there spends a lot of time talking about how good the founders of an idea are.  Are those people the type that it takes to be a start-up leader?  Do they have good breadth of knowledge?  Inventiveness?  Adaptability?  Charisma?  The desire to work one’s ass off for a few years before ramping their business up?

In some cases, the literature says that angels and VCs and whatnot will often fund something on the basis solely of its founder and on the idea secondarily if at all.  They know that a good founder will make just about anything work.

So why does it come back to ideas and not the people behind them?

Georgetown MSFS’s Role in the Ecosystem

I think Georgetown MSFS has a unique position; it is placed in DC (a massive swirl of politicians, interns, NGO do-gooders, lobbyists, start-ups, consultants, activists, city dwellers, culture-lovers), is built into a fantastic school with an undergraduate base, has a powerful Jesuit tradition of erudition and moral value system that values diversity, and pumps out graduates who end up doing some of the craziest, most innovative, bizarre, important things you’ve never imagined.

In terms of its competition, MSFS doesn’t have many peers in terms of having fascinating people doing politics.  Johns Hopkins SAIS is closer to downtown but seems to be more applied economics.  Where do SAIS grads show up?  I don’t know…I don’t read about them often except that Tim Geithner just got nominated for Treasury.  George Washington, American, and George Mason are also fine schools but don’t dominate politics quite the same way Georgetown does.  As a caveat I should add that I’m amazed that the calibre of people who move out of these schools — DC truly is a place where anyone you meet on the street ends up being just the most fascinating person.

Schools outside DC (Columbia, Harvard, Yale, etc.) are also extremely good — don’t think I’m taking anything away from them — but they’re not as positioned for what I propose.

A Start-Up Fund for People

So Georgetown, which has a long tradition of truly singular models of virtue, ingenuity, and innovation, could build into its School of Foreign Service an organization that identifies the future possible leaders and issues them a challenge:  start up a company or organization that has the potential to help lots of people.  Instead of funding an idea, you fund a person.  The scope could be limited to social entrepreneurship, and/or to a “social business” model which does not pay out to shareholders but instead reinvests profits into helping more people.  This may be optional; while ideas shouldn’t be limited, you don’t want some SNAFU like this one guy I listened to on a panel once who, in response to “What do you want to do with your life?” answered “I want to create a new financial derivative.”  That was back in 2007 before the financial crisis began.

The fund would support the person enough to live for a certain duration of time, with further money allotted for a company space and, depending, money to hire outside help (like a programmer or two) if it can’t be crowdcoded.

The person could of course recruit other people from the campus or partner with other people chosen by the fund.  People wouldn’t have to apply to be selected — they could be nominated by others.  Any barriers to entry such as long admission applications would be minimal, so that those who are discouraged by doing yet more stupid paperwork for something they may not even have a chance for won’t be discouraged.

Heck, encourage an online standardization:  use LinkedIn for online résumé collection.

A Commons

A further addition to this is providing these people with a commons, as I described in an “Internet Commons Business Idea” post on my reputation research blog.

This would be a common area with laptops, large meeting tables, whiteboards, projectors, office supplies, everyone you need to bring a team together and brainstorm and code and do business, fit with phones, business address, full facilities and services.  Any empty office space can be rented for this purpose.  It doesn’t have to be much — just a place where a founding team can work together in an open area…and even collaborate with other teams.

The Final Piece:  Leveraging Politics

In the same way that Stanford seems to be the nexus for new web start-ups and Harvard/MIT seem to be the braintrusts for a lot of new start-ups and academic projects and research, Georgetown could become the hotspot for political start-ups.  There’s been much talk of Government 2.0, or bringing the US government into the Web 2.0 world of online collaboration.  There’s no greater concentration of activists, lobbyists, NGOs, NFPs, etc. than DC (Geneva?).  Not only is there a massive network of inspired minds here in DC, but they are also somewhat idealistic, risk averse, and willing to do something bold in order to effect change.

Sounds like the perfect place for start-up culture to me.  Combine this with a vibrant Georgetown political life — not the cocktail-drinking elite as John McCain thumbed his nose down upon — but hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial Georgetown figures and personalities.  You have tons of personalities to choose from to help found this new start-up fund.

What Do We Get?

The end result is a closer approximation to how great ideas actually are made successful.  Choose great people:  you know from your circles of people which ones are always thinking of solutions to problems.  They may be the kinds who just have the energy and risk adversity to go out and start a new company.  They may just be really efficient at small projects.  At any rate, I don’t think these people are that secret.  Some people are start-up people, others aren’t.  Give them time to develop a project and maybe they will come up with a better idea than pure beauty-contest-business-plan start-up competitions can.

Certainly other organizations do something similar to this:  Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, Omidyar.  But an MSFS fund could focus on its core strengths:

  • Utilizing the Georgetown campus, network, and Washington, DC political social sphere
  • Building a core around awesomely diverse, eccentric, and productive students, alumni, and faculty
  • Funding key people, not necessarily ideas
  • Focusing on solving social problems in keeping with Georgetown/Jesuit tradition
  • Incorporating Georgetown’s unparalleled insight into international affairs, policy issues, international development, and interdisciplinary research.

Who else can compete with us there?

I don’t know.  I just think this way makes a lot more sense to how humans innovate.  And I think Georgetown’s atmosphere is one of the few places where that energy could really be supported flourish as part of the community.

[Extra reading:  entrepreneur hotels]