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]

Emergence of New Systems

Last week the National Intelligence Council released its 2025 Global Trends report and naturally our Georgetown MSFS program was pretty interested in looking at it.  The report considers what the major themes and trends will be of the next couple decades and assesses how they will affect different countries, power structures, and ideologies.

It must have sucked for the NIC because at first the report was issued at 33MB and didn’t seem to be uploaded correctly.  It wasn’t until this weekend that the report was fixed and was only 8MB to download.  Lost a lot of readership that way.

Some of the report’s assessments I didn’t exactly agree with.  I felt that it sold international institutions short, saying countries and regions would seek pragmatic concerns — a return to a “mercantilist” and realist perspective — over recommitting to international institutions.  At the very least I think it’s up in the air on that count; Obama’s presence alone (see his calm, thoughtful interview on 60 Minutes) might bring people back to the table, especially with Europe seeking to reassert itself in the midst of its own internal problems with population and economic stagnation and with filling a power vacuum from America’s absence the last 8 years.

Read More »

Why I Chose Development

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

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

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

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

Those are the broad generalizations and stereotypes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

Webheads for Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Baer on "Fresh Air"

My mom and a classmate recommended that I listen to Baer speak on NPR. It’s a long interview, but well worth it. Listen here.

He talks mainly about Iran but it has implications in a lot of different areas. A lot of what Baer said challenged what I thought about what’s going on in the Middle East, and I thought I had a good handle on things! Here’s some things that I didn’t know/agree with before he explained it:

Arabs and Persians have transcended their racial differences: Sadr (Mahdi Army in Iraq) and Nasrullah (Hezbollah in Lebanon) under Iranian influence. Iran wants the US to leave completely from Iraq (hence it disagrees with the US leaving bases in Iraq) because it has Maliki in its pocket. Iraq will have to go to Iran for permission to act. In my opinion, this is still contrary to the intentionally false intel that Iran is supporting terror in Iraq — Iran wants stability in Iraq because otherwise war destabilizes Iraq.

Bin Laden is dead. He asks, “Where is he?” Never has anyone disappeared off the face of the map. Bin Laden wouldn’t dye his hair (this is true, he’s very pious). No DVDs recently?

Other points:

Says Iran is unique in history as a virtual empire: pulling strings with Shi’a in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Says we need a Manhattan Project for alternative energy. (also a term used in the debate) Fuck yes. Argues that Iran will light the Persian Gulf on fire and attack oil infrastructure if provoked.

Says Iran is not looking for war with Israel or the US; it can’t afford it. We should talk to the true leaders in Iran, not Ahmadinejad, to see what they’re serious about doing.

Sunni fundamentalism (such as Salafism) is dangerous and can’t be dealt with. Shi’ite fundamentalism is open to a deal. (true, Salafists refuse any modification to Islam, which blocks reform)

Ahmadinejad is as irrelevant as McCarthy was.

Olmert wants to give up West Bank and east Jerusalem. Iran sees itself as a rising star with a weakened US, no enemy in Iraq, weakened Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iranians are more likely to go up against Saudi than Israel — and if they get nukes, so will Saudi. (could Iran help us broker a deal in the Palestine?)

There’s a theory that Israel might try an attack on Iran, but probably only after the US election with a weakened Bush. But Israel doesn’t really want all-out war, Baer says.

The Debate on Pakistan

Last night I watched the presidential debate.  Whatever.  But one part that really pissed me off was when Obama and McCain talked about Pakistan (here’s a transcript).

First off, McCain mispronounced or did not know the new Pakistani president’s name, Zardari, as “Kadari”.  While McCain knew a lot of past leaders in the old NATO playground of eastern Europe, his flub on Zardari falls in a long line of flubs by senior American leaders on Muslim names.  As an Arabic linguist, I know that there is only one conclusion:  complete ignorance of Muslim culture.  But I guess we knew that already.

Second, McCain claimed that Pakistan was a failed state before General Musharraf (yes, “General”…) took over.  What a fantastic piece of revisionism.  Pakistan was enjoying a rather democratic period in its history with Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who were not altogether uncorrupt but who are now (after Musharraf’s ouster) still prominent figures of Pakistani democracy.

So what McCain was saying was that Pakistan was a failed state until General Musharraf undertook a coup d’état and would later try to arrest a Supreme Court judge, tease along a dog-like US eager for bin Laden’s head, and try to obtain lifetime rule.

When people criticize the US for speaking about democracy but undertaking and espousing anti-democratic views of other nations, this is what they are referring to!

A last note on McCain.  I can’t confirm this but I’m pretty sure McCain falsely claimed that he traveled to Waziristan.  Waziristan, as you might know, is an area in northwestern Pakistan outside of the government’s control and firmly Talibanized, lawless, and incredibly dangerous not only for any white man but for any foreigners.  I can’t imagine McCain went to Waziristan in any shape or fashion.  If he did, he was part of the greatest covert operation ever, involving a wonderful disguise of his skin color, clothing, linguistic abilities, religious belief, etc.  The only way Americans get into Waziristan is with massive special operations escort.

Obama on the other hand was better, but disappointing.  He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan (and I imagine McCain does too).  Afghanistan will not be contained by American forces, no matter how many we send in.  What is the historical precedent?  What are we going to do there?  Wall off Kandahar and Kabul?

It’s veterans like me who will have to fill the slots to go to war there.  What will we accomplish?  Iraq is a dismal failure, despite McCain’s promises that it’s wildly successful, and it will be even worse in Afghanistan, the home of mujahed legend, where population density is sparse and economic activity is even lower.  That Obama and McCain do not recognize that Waziristan is outside of Pakistani control (read NYTimes’ recent article on the subject), even after very bloody and humiliating attempts by the Pakistani military to contain it, is haunting.  Our politicians are trying to remain “strong” on terror but they have no long-term focus, or even one that takes into account international relations theory.  But then again, even the Pakistani experts are wrong on this issue.

What we should do in fact is withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and during the logistical flight mess, attack Waziristan and FATA.  It might even be worth doing so while troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We should withdraw funding to Pakistan (and Israel, and Iraq, and…).  My logic is that we know that bin Laden and Zawahiri are in FATA somewhere.  We have set up a large martial law-like apparatus in airports worldwide, which should have been a temporary move instead of a permanent one.

If we were to use our offensive military advantage in FATA, we could disrupt and flush out long-entrenched senior leaders.  They know they are perfectly safe there for now, even while we put clamps down on the rest of the world.  But if they are forced to move, we will generate intelligence and have better leads on them, especially if they attempt to flee to potential future havens like Yemen.

But this must be combined with withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This will drain the mujahed solidarity more than you might think.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Yes, they will celebrate another “victory”, but it will not collapse the US like it did the Soviet Union.  I hope.  The financial crisis here at home has made that less clear.

One problem in Pakistan is that it’s a nuclear state.  Destabilizing the government could cause nuclear weapons to get in the hands of Al-Qaeda, which does indeed desire to use nuclear weapons against its enemies.  But wouldn’t its arsenal be fairly centralized and easy to protect?  Couldn’t we (or China, going by that Wiki article above) help to secure those arms and thus have an avenue to cooperate with Pakistan while going into FATA?  I understand the concern on this issue but don’t think it’s a deal-killer.

But they will lose incentive for arms flows (the US is flooding Muslim nations with weapons), ease of access to killing Americans, ease of training and impact evaluation for missions, public support for jihad.  The US can shore up its domestic support, re-tool its military, and stop draining its coffers.  Regionally, neighbors of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq will have to close their borders.  Up till now, they’ve had a strong incentive to open their borders:  they’ve been able to release their extremists and send them to fight the jihad in other countries, increasing their security by ridding themselves of problem people.  With an outside enemy gone, they will have to return to their pre-Iraq postures.

I believe in sovereignty and self-determinism and all that, but I do believe that we have a very simple mission:  kill bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Even the dumbest soldier understands that mission.  But we have failed for about seven years in this mission.  That is unconscionable.  Critics would say that the mission has changed, or that bin Laden’s death will not end jihad.  No, it will not end the jihad, but killing or capturing key leaders of insurgencies substantially reduces the institutional capacity of an organization.  It is also an incredibly simple metric for governments to pursue.

And to be honest, how politically unpopular would it be to say that we will go balls-to-the-wall to kill bin Laden in his safe haven, regardless of Pakistani “sovereignty”?  They don’t control FATA, and we have history on our side when we almost got bin Laden in Tora Bora.

This scenario won’t happen.  We may get lucky and nab bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Both parties will claim success.  I guess the last question I should leave you with is, “If we’re not going into FATA, then whose interests would it be in to make sure we never do?”

Tim O'Reilly on Priorities

Good video from the Web 2.0 conference in NYC. O’Reilly refers back to the divergence between what software developers are working on (silly Facebook apps) and all the major problems in the world which they are NOT addressing.

As a development student with a tech background, I see this first-hand. Hell, that’s why I went into development in the first place, despite my interests in other areas like counter-terrorism and foreign policy. What are we going to do about the bottom billion, or the increasing income gap?

However, I think it would be unrealistic to ask programmers to have much of an impact in Africa or among the most disconnected poor…

Still, worth watching:

http://www.web2expo.blip.tv/#1283514

On My Development Class

So I’ve had a few months to think about my int’l development orthodoxies class last semester. I couldn’t explain why, but I always had a thorn in my side about that class.

I ended up getting a B, even after talking on several occasions privately with my prof and usually being the lone contributor of the dissenting opinion in our weekly reading reports, published online for all the students to see.

I was really pissed about getting a B because I felt like I put forth more effort than most (in fact knowing for sure that many didn’t even do all the reading) and that I would contribute in more ways than just blowing hot air by making dumb, forced comments in class, which the prof always tried to get me to do more.

He claimed that I didn’t cite enough evidence for my claims, which is probably true to some degree but now that I think about it, I really do think there were ideological differences that played a part as well. I am notoriously bad at being thorough in justifying my opinions (you need only read this blog to see that) but in general my intuition is usually right. If you disagree with someone, it’s much harder to see their opinion as justified or backed up with good evidence. I was dealing with a class of future institutioners and a prof who had a history of institutionalized work.

I remember vividly one time in my globalization class (which had several of the same students) when I went off on some rant about Iraq because our book that week was on the Bush reasons for war. The professor stopped me after I’d said something to the effect of “well, the ultimate goal of capitalism is to achieve a monopoly, right?” She actually told me that that was impossible to prove and that we should move on… (I think I also said in the same class that we should’ve at least gotten a shitload of oil out of Iraq if the neocons were to succeed at their plan, and we even failed at that, another statement that received no feedback.)

That really rubbed me the wrong way because it seems so self-evident that a company’s basic goal is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The best way to do that is to push out all your competition and achieve complete pricing control. I don’t buy into the bullshit of corporate social responsibility very much except that hopefully it’s some bridge between raw capitalism and some future, enlightened state.

Read this article about the profit-maximization of businesses under Bill Gates’ “creative capitalism” proposal. There are three things that I see wrong with capitalism the way Americans are taught about it:

One, it requires a competitive market in order to work properly. The assumption is made that if the government is not involved, then any company that exists in a space is going to maximize efficiency. No, it’s maximizing profit and not necessarily benefit to the customer. Efficiency is not required in a monopoly or oligopoly. A competitive market, by the way, is not the same thing as a “free” market, which is what neoliberals want.

Large distortions take place when companies get the government to give them subsidies or legal protection or monopoly status. Which is what’s happened in a lot of areas in the US right now. Many of the most “successful” companies in the US live completely off sucking the teat of the US government in no-bid contracts and high-level networked deals.

Capitalism is war — companies SHOULD be fighting it out with each other. But the government has to ensure that that level playing field exists.

Two, that companies will be “good”. Muhammad Yunus describes this well in his latest writings. Basically, a company that purports to care about a community or about the environment or about political issues only cares to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with the true bottom line, maximizing profit. Usually being “socially active” helps some other agenda the company has, like establishing a presence in a foreign country or pushing policies that will help it get favorable status in an industry. Double and triple bottom lines are bullshit.

A company should always be assumed to make profit regardless of how it affects others. Business is warfare. Companies fight with the gloves off — there’s no “honor” or “generosity”.

I made the same analogy when I was in the military. We were soldiers, and we were trained to destroy and to kill. That’s it. That was our job. To make us win the hearts and minds was plain naive. To have us doing policing duties was stupid. To think that we could become good friends with Iraqis and Afghanis was what the government told the people to placate them. Our job was to kill, and whenever we were around with our weapons, missions, and intelligence, lots of people died. It’s like in the movie “The Siege”, when Bruce Willis, playing an officer, implores Congress not to deploy the Army to protect New York City during a terrorist threat. Of course, when the Army ends up coming in, it starts torturing suspects and intimidating the populace. Nature of the beast.

Three, the way that corporations work right now, it’s rare that the top executives and board have much of a stake in the success of the company any more. People are involved in multiple boards of directors and they tend to cash out fairly quickly once making a profit. And bad CEOs continue to be hired by other companies after destroying the last one. So you have a CEO class that takes turns leading companies without any accountability, while their salaries and bonuses and options packages continue to bring them more money. The idea that it’s in a company’s long-term interest to serve its customers and deliver the best product or service is not necessarily true because the owners are no longer always stake-holders.

This would seem to contradict my claim that companies seek to maximize profit. So I guess the point is that everyone is basically following the maxim “get rich or die tryin'”. In other words, the floating executives are earning as much easy money they can no matter what the negative impact will be, and so are companies as a whole. Long-term success is devalued.

Francis Fukuyama is often quoted for his “End of History” theory that stated basically that after the Cold War ended, there was no ideological opponent for capitalism. This has certainly been true in the US. “Government” is such a bad word in the US that companies have run amok. But really you need a government to represent the commons and the people, because for companies, they are going to keep innovating new ways to monetize whatever they can, as they should. It is warfare, and you need both sides.

What’s funny is that for anyone to say this publically is suicide. Claims of socialism and communism and big government quickly follow. But man, I’m all about capitalism and entrepreneurship and exploiting niches. But I at least have the sense to look at the bigger picture, and know that there should be laws and standards and regulations to stop me from going too far.

So going back to that development class, we kept being told that the Washington Consensus was pretty bad, but what else is there? If we can’t deny that no country has succeeded without economic growth, then how can we toss that out as a metric? Aren’t the World Bank and IMF and development agencies better now that they’re not trying to force structural adjustment programs on unsuspecting countries?

Every week in my dissent paper I would dispute those challenges… Intuitively, but perhaps not empirically, I’d resist what we were being taught.

Now, with some hindsight and more reading, I understand more about why I resist the main development line being espoused right now. It makes me far more suspicious about the entire development field. It makes me suspicious of my fellow development colleagues who will end up pushing a top-down agenda at the World Bank, USAID, and self-righteous NGOs. Isn’t there a third way? Or multiple other ways to help reduce poverty and encourage freer markets and encourage bottom-up democratic movements?