Health, Education & Productivity

A recent email brought notice of four impressive National Academy reports.  Two were 2021 reports on High Quality Primary Care and The Future of Nursing.  One was a 2017 report on Pathways to Health Equity and the other was a 2012 report on Primary Care and Public Health.  These are all impressive pieces of work.

The findings and recommendations of these efforts are well reasoned and likely, if implemented, to lead to improvements.  However, the greatest constraints on health and wellness outcomes, as well as the costs of these outcomes, are not due to medicine, drugs, or reimbursement practices.  Fragmentation of the US health and wellness ecosystem greatly constrains what improvements can be entertained and adopted.

There is a central faith in the US that the free-market system will result in better outcomes.  Your health and wellness provider wants to maximize what they charge you.  Your health and wellness payer wants to minimize what costs they will reimburse.  Pharma wants to charge you as much as possible.  Everyone is trying to maximize their profits and provide you the minimal quality of services you will accept.

Doctors are often limited to 20 minutes per patient to sustain provider cash flows.  Payers may, in my experience, deny every claim, hoping you will not figure out how to protest.  Pharma will charge you enormous sums for drugs for which there is no evidence of helping you, but you are convinced are your only choice.  Patients are cash cows being milked whenever possible and, if not inconvenient, legally.

Health and wellness used to be the poster child for predatory financial practices, but this sector has given way to higher education.  The increases in the costs of higher education have far exceeded the increases in health and wellness.  Now, students have become cash cows, accumulating student debts far in excess of total US credit card debts.  We will soon get to the point that former students are still paying off loans when their children are in college, accumulating their own debts.

The government-backed student loan program gave universities license to steadily raise prices to fund out-of-control administrative and staff costs while moving to part-time faculty to reduce the costs of delivering education.  The fact that 25% of these faculty members are on welfare – mainly Medicaid and food stamps – did not give pause to university executives.  They are just trying to balance their bloated budgets.

To be fair, a significant percentage of budget increases are due to having to provide remedial tutoring to students whose K-12 experiences did not prepare them for college, as well as mental health services for a large percentage of students stressed out by the whole experience.  A large percentage of K-12 programs do not prepare students for college, or really for anything.  For example, only 37% of US high school graduates are proficient in reading.

Consequently, colleges in striving to accommodate increasingly ill-prepared K-12 graduates have to fund remedial services.  An alternative would be national standards for high school graduation, but local control of K-12 education works against this.  Local taxpayers are unwilling to fund the K-12 programs that would yield college-ready high school graduates.  Thus, a large proportion of US high school graduates are not prepared to compete with graduates from Asia and Europe. 

My recent analyses show that students graduating from high school with GPAs of 4.0 and math SATs of 800 will do quite well in college.  For the most part, parents invested in these students in terms of attention, time and money.  A large proportion of students did not experience such investments.  Here is a likely indicator of the problem – if you do not achieve a 3rd grade reading level by the end of 3rd grade, chances are you will never go to college.  Thus, the die is cast for 9-year-olds!

We would also like our healthy and educated population to be productive and competitive in the global marketplace.  Focusing on productivity is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it causes employers to invest in technologies to enhance human productivity.  On the other hand, they may invest in automation to eliminate human labor. 

Employers want the lowest cost means to secure revenues.  Thus, home healthcare workers, one of the fastest growing segments of employment, are inadequately trained and very poorly paid.  Nursing is poorly paid and older nurses are encouraged to retire to make room for younger nurses who earn less.

Higher education has rapidly moved to low-cost part-time faculty members.  Increasingly high-quality online offerings may eliminate the need for faculty members.  Everyone will learn physics from Richard Feynman and economics from Paul Samuelson, even though they are no longer with us. 

The overarching goals are maximizing revenues, minimizing costs, and optimizing profits.  Cash cows are zealously sought.  Exploitation of consumers and workers is all too common.  The free-market economy has benefits, for example, in terms of innovation.  However, these benefits are not widely shared.  The winners gain enormously.  Everybody else joins the herd of cash cows.

The fragmentation of our economic and social system enables everyone to focus on their personal success in terms of income, education, and health – and automobiles, bank accounts, and housing.  The theory is that everyone doing this will lead to all of society being better off.  For those pundits arguing this, I would like to see hard data that supports these assertions.  Absent such data, they should be immediately fired or flogged.

Addressing Complications

The world seems to be coming increasingly complicated.  Everything seems connected to everything.  It seems reasonable to argue that this has long been the case.  Diseases migrated from the old world to the new world, as did social and cultural norms.  However, this process took years or decades.

Now, accelerated by technology, it takes days or less.  Communications technology, in particular, has enabled rapid access to information and social connections, ranging from CNN and the Internet to Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  Consequently, we are engulfed in connectivity.

We thought this connectivity would be a total blessing, but it truly is a mixed blessing.  We all used to get the same news, perhaps from Walter Cronkite and Newsweek and Time.  Now many people get only news tailored to their preconceptions.  They never see or hear anything at odds with what they already believe.

In fact, media and personalities design news for them, independent of any factual basis.  If they think Jewish space lasers started the California wild fires, the news they see will encourage that.  If they think Donny Cheetos won the last presidential election, the news will reinforce that.  The goal is to get their votes, while not committing to doing anything to directly benefit these voters.

This is truly unfortunate, but Darwin will take care of this conflict, as the current surge of coronavirus cases among the non-vaccinated illustrates.  However, the complexity of the relationships among national security, healthcare delivery, higher education, and energy and climate are more profound, even without adding transportation, power, water, food, etc.

We cannot address problems in each of these areas like we are playing Whack-A-Mole.  Simply moving problems around seems momentarily successful, but ultimately a failure, wasting resources and the time to respond effectively.  Society needs to address this matrix of interacting challenges wholistically.  It is not about who wins today.  It is about how everyone wins tomorrow.

It starts with understanding the complications.  Education leads to health.  Education and health lead to productivity.  Healthy, educated and productive people contribute more to the economic pie that they all share.  The equation is simple.  If more people are contributing to the pie than are drawing from the pie, then everyone is better off, everyone has the potential to join the contributing class.

Quite simply, if someone is drawing from the pie to eventually becoming capable of contributing to the pie, then over time everyone will be better off.  Everyone needs help at some point; everyone can provide help at some point.  Helping everyone enables everyone at some point to give back.  The gift may be large or small.  The key is to make sure that everyone perceives the gift.

The Spectrum of Talent

Economic growth, many argue, stems from technological innovation.  Does technological innovation depend on the flow of STEM talent from our educational system?  That certainly was not the case in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Inventors emerged from all corners of society, few equipped with degrees in science and technology.

The transformation from inventions to innovation more significantly depended on highly educated people to design factories, create supply chains, and fashion communications that attracted consumers to fuel increasing demands for digital devices, communications platforms, designer clothes, sports and entertainment.  Turning a good idea into a pervasively desired commercial offering takes talent.

It seems to me that great ideas – inventions – emerge from a wide range of insightful, creative, and committed sources, many steeped in experience more than education.  Educated talent is brought to bear to scale technical inventions into market innovations.  Many, perhaps most, inventions are not scalable and do not “make the cut.”  A few do and are enormous market successes.

What limits success?  Do we need more inventors or innovators – or both?  Another possibility is that the market can only absorb so much success.  Are we all ready for digital devices, driverless cars, teleportation, and space travel?  Perhaps innovations happen when ideas converge with compelling needs.  Then, educated talent makes sure we learn about, embrace, and can afford inventions that become innovations.

Talent, then, is waiting in the wings for inventors to create things that can be transformed into innovations.  How might we facilitate this?  It seems to me that we need to get inventors and innovators to frequent the same pubs.  Transformation is a social process that, while watching one or another sporting event, gets people talking about what each other does.  The key is bringing ideas and talent together.

I am not limiting this idea to scientists and engineers – creators and exploiters of technical knowledge.  The pub needs to be welcoming to artists and artisans, humanists and historians.  The currency is ideas and insights, not bucks and bitcoins.  Enough alliteration.  You get the idea.  We need the full spectrum of talent to address problems and create valuable solutions.

Here is a crazy idea.  What if pubs had agendas, say on Mondays to avoid competing with sporting events?  Each Monday would address a different challenge – education, energy, healthcare, etc.  Each pub would somehow capture all the ideas discussed and provide them to a national clearing house.  The ideas from thousands of pubs would be aggregated and presented on a weekly PBS show, What America Thinks.  I realize polls try to do this, but they don’t offer pub food and drinks.

We need the discussions and debates to be live and hands-on, not filling in forms on your tablets or laptops.  Teams, Webex, or Zoom might provide the venues, but I want to see if the person I am arguing with drinks beer, wine or vodka, and has fries or a side salad.  When he or she makes a great point, I want to buy them another drink.  I want to be able to show them pictures of my grandson, my favorite red panda at the zoo, or the classic 1940s car I am restoring. 

I think we have the talent, energy, and enthusiasm to address and resolve major societal challenges.  However, this cannot be an academic exercise pursued by specialists.  It needs to be a team sport that we pursue together.  While I advocate meeting in pubs, it could be in churches or at social clubs where all perspectives are welcome.  The venue has to allow all values, concerns, and perceptions to be heard, not necessarily agreed with but heard.

Rethinking Health, Education & Productivity

As I have discussed many times before, a compelling overall goal is a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.

  • Anyone who is not healthy is a drag on the national economy
  • Anyone who is not educated is a drag on the national economy
  • Anyone who is not productive is a drag on the national economy

Consequently, we need to invest so this does not happen.  Everyone, regardless of age, health, disabilities, ethnicity and inclinations, needs to receive the investments necessary to keep them from being drags on the economy.  Everyone contributes, in one way or another!

How can this be accomplished?  We need to move beyond rationing healthcare, education, and workforce training.  We need to make sure that everyone is enabled to be contributors.  There are no spectators; only participants.  This may involve working, volunteering or making woodcraft or clothing for others, but not avoiding participation.

Let’s put this in perspective, according to AARP, American’s population of people 50 years old and older constitute the third largest global economy behind the US and China.  100 million older Americans and disabled Americans represent market forces.  Globally, of course, the impact is even greater.  Everyone can be and should be contributors.

To maximize this possibility, we need to start earlier in pre-school and K-12.  No one – no child, no teen, no adult – should be left behind.  We want to maximize everyone’s potential to their benefit and ours.  Monies spent on health and education are not costs.  They are investments that will benefit everyone.  Healthy, educated, and productive people are human capital assets.

We include financial and physical assets on balance sheets, but not human capital.  We tend to want to maximize financial assets, minimize physical assets, and employ as little human capital as possible.  However, humans are central to manufacturing products, delivering services, and consuming both.  Henry Ford lowered prices and increased pay so that people could afford his cars.  Without humans, our economy disappears.

Investment Priorities

We have, of late, been focused on federal policies to assure and enhance the STEM talent pipeline in the US.  There is a widespread sense that the pipeline is not as robust as the economy and competitiveness requires.  Are we trying to “fix” STEM? 

Maybe, but we need to keep priorities in perspective.  As I have frequently articulated elsewhere, the overarching goal is a “healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.”  Thus, the STEM talent pipeline is just one element, albeit a very important element, in the complex adaptive system we need to address to achieve the overarching goal.

The starting point is health and wellness. Population health involves integration of health, education, and social services to keep a defined population healthy, to address health challenges holistically, and to assist with the realities of being mortal.  A healthy and well population is an asset that can provide the basis for competitiveness and economic growth.

Next is education, ranging from pre-school to K-12 to post-secondary education, which includes colleges ranging from community colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions to graduate and professional schools.  Also important is job-related training received from employers, including the military.  The objective is lifelong education.  Learning is an ongoing process, not something one finishes.

Workforce productivity is enabled by heath and education, but requires substantial additional investments.  Some of this investment is in training to gain needed knowledge and skills.  Another major investment is in the technologies to leverage knowledge and skills.  This can include, for example, technologies to support detection, diagnosis, and remediation of failures of increasingly complex systems, for example, increasingly autonomous vehicles.

The intent underlying these elements of the overarching goal is to foster not the lowest-cost workforce, but to enable a workforce that can successfully compete in any arena.  This workforce will likely be highly compensated, but its effectiveness and efficiency will yield revenues and profits that dwarf the investments in people needed to succeed, now and repeatedly, in the global marketplace.

Consider returns on such investments.  The costs of health, education, and productivity are fairly clear.  What are the returns?  People work, create value, earn incomes, consume value created by others, and pay federal, state, and local taxes.  There is a multiplier effect as people’s expenditures become other people’s income, and their expenditures become other people’s income, etc.  Taxes are paid on all these incomes.

All of these cash flows can be financially modeled, over time.  ROI can then be calculated using a discount rate appropriate for borrowing the monies needed for these investments.  As reasonable as this sounds, it is not done.  Instead, highly fragmented and well-resourced vested interests focus on assuring their “rice bowls.”  Elected legislators aid and abet this feeding frenzy.  Consequently, there are no society-wide overarching investment priorities.

DoD Acquisition as a Sport

The US Department of Defense acquires systems to equip forces to assure the national security of the country.  The process of acquiring systems is termed Acquisition, which involves a very complex organizational system across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the four (now five) military services, and the aerospace/defense industry.  It is very competitive.

If Acquisition were a sport, how might it be characterized?  We can immediately eliminate sports such as archery, badminton, golf, ice dancing, skiing, and tennis, where results are totally dependent on individual performance.  While individuals such as the Secretary of Defense or the Military Service Secretaries can have enormous impacts, they have influence but not control over this complex adaptive system.

What about baseball, basketball, football, and hockey – the big four in the US?  Baseball focuses on the duel between pitchers and hitters; Acquisition is not at all this focused.  Basketball relies on five key players, of which two or three need to be superstars.  In football, the quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers dominate.  Hockey is similar, with a goalie charged with preventing goals.  Lacrosse fits in here as a hybrid of basketball and football.  Acquisition is not at all like this.

This leads us to rugby and soccer.  These sports have rules, but they do not stop the clock for commercials.  Players have “positions,” but anyone can score.  Players do not wear protective gear.  Rugby allows carrying the ball while soccer does not.  Both sports are much more fluid and not dominated by referee decisions.  Of course, at the other extreme is cricket where games can take several days, meals, and sleeping.

So, what kind of game is Acquisition?  Here are ten rules of the game:

  1. Games can take many years, sometimes with delays of multiple years.
  2. Teams typically include the usual players with occasionally surprise draft choices.
  3. Rules of the game are fluid, subject to influence by many stakeholders.
  4. Officials can appear from anywhere and invoke unheard of rules.
  5. Proprietary advantages can be declared unfair and made public technology.
  6. Plays that have long been successful can be ruled illegal.
  7. Winning can include a nominal trophy, but not all the expected accolades.
  8. Proposed pricing is open to renegotiation after winning.
  9. The fruits of winning may diminish but pricing commitments remain.
  10. Winning does not necessarily result in subsequent higher seeding.

Despite all this, the same teams seem to win all the time.  It is as if the Red Sox and Yankees merged, the Celtics and Lakers did as well, the Cowboys and the 49ers followed, and the Canadiens and Maple Leafs also merged to win the trophies every year.  All that remains are the commercials for beer and pickup trucks.

Is Everything Connected to Everything

For many years, my research related to design, operations, and maintenance of national security and space systems.  Over the past two decades, I have added healthcare delivery, higher education, urban systems, as well as energy and transportation.  These complex ecosystems interact in myriad ways.  In particular, they interact in terms of claims on societal resources.

Is it more important that people are healthy or educated?  Is green energy a higher priority than transportation?  Is national security an element of competitiveness?  It seems like there are tradeoffs everywhere.  Is that the case and, if so, how do we address them?  It seems to me that we do not want to tradeoff someone’s heart surgery versus refueling an F-35.  There needs to be a more principled approach to this.

I have found this approach to be useful.  For the sake of argument, let’s limit the discussion to national security (S), healthcare delivery (H), higher education (E), and energy and climate (C).  We are interested in formulating an investment portfolio that maximizes society utility U (S, H, E, C).  How might this be done?  Here is how we might proceed.

W start by asking the S, H, E, and C constituencies what they could deliver for budgets equal to 80%, 100%, 120%, and 140% of their current budgets.  Given that they are seeking to maximize their budgets, each would argue for how they could increase U(S), U(H), U(E), and U(C).  That is exactly what we want them to do.  Once they make their arguments, how do we decide?

We need to decompose U (S, H, E, C) into U [U(S), U(H), U(E), U(C)].  Then, we need to consider interactions.  Are we better off if people are healthy and educated, or if they are nationally secure or energy secure?  There are many possibilities here and much debate is warranted.

What is the appropriate form of U (S, H, E, C)?  A simply weighted linear formulation presents the problem of allocating all the resources to the investment that will receive the greatest increase of utility, although the nature of diminishing returns will limit this extreme.  A functional form that includes cross terms, e.g., U(X) times U(Y), will limit this extreme, but requires assessing weights in a much more complicated fashion.

Another approach is to employ a weighted linear formulation but pursue a range of scenarios that systematically vary the weights.  What is the best outcome for S, H, E, and C?  Once we understand these distinct possibilities, how can we creatively decrease the distances among the outcomes?  My experiences have been that once everyone understands different views, many creative proposals emerge.

The key is to get each stakeholder group to understand the perspectives of the other stakeholder groups.  Usually, everyone realizes that compromises are necessary to moving forward.  Everything is connected to everything, but this need not deter us from making incremental progress that everyone values.  We are not in a “zero-sum” game where there are only winners and losers.  We can all take turns helping each other out.

What Has Changed

I began my career as an engineering assistant at Raytheon over 50 years ago.  Since then, I have founded and managed five high-tech companies, and held faculty positions at six universities.  These experiences led to working with 100+ companies, agencies, foundations, etc.  What has changed over the course of this journey?

  • Increased computing power at steadily decreasing costs, big data, and visualization technology enabled, but did not always lead to, increased evidence-based decision making.  There were substantial investments in ICT in banking, finance, and retail.
  • Substantial consolidation in the healthcare, aerospace and defense, automotive, and semiconductor industries led to much larger enterprises and but steadily decreasing competition.  A few companies dominate each market sector.
  • Between the mid 2000s and late 2010s, applications to form businesses that would likely hire workers fell 16%.  New business applications fell 24% in 2008, 4% in 2011 and 6% in 2014, and grew just under 1% last year.  Bottom-up innovation suffered.
  • Online service delivery soared, especially for retail and mobility services.  Supply chains became increasingly automated.  Portable digital devices became pervasive with consumers.  Online social media flourished.
  • Starting perhaps with the 9/11attacks on the US, terrorism has taken center stage, increasingly accompanied by cyber threats and the manipulation of elections, pervasively intertwined with social media, fake news, and conspiracy theories.
  • Driven by the recent pandemic, remote working from home and online education soared, undermining the value of bricks & mortar as well as the industries that serve these establishments, e.g., food and maintenance services
  • Despite the power of computing and connectivity, humans remain behavioral and social animals with desires, inclinations and biases similar to their less computer-oriented and connected ancestors.  We have become digital natives, but still natives.

How should we interpret these seven trends and what do they portend for the future?

  • Continued technological innovation will increasingly enhance efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare, education, energy, national security, and other domains, leading to enormous service improvements with lower costs.
  • Workforce displacement will be substantial as routine jobs and tasks will be increasingly automated while there will be strong growth of jobs for the skilled technical workforce; many will be educated and trained in community colleges.
  • The total population will need to be educated, equivalent to a high school graduation rate of 100%, to be able to join the skilled technical workforce.  To accomplish this, US community college capacity will need to triple.
  • Substantial investments will be needed to facilitate these changes and keep the US competitive in the global marketplace.  Beyond investments, policies associated with immigration and employment will need to be aligned with these objectives.
  • All of the above will require new perspectives on change and associated visions for pursuing these changes.  Discussions and debates will center on global competitiveness and needs for a healthy, educated and productive workforce.
  • Equitable access to opportunities and services, such as healthcare and education, will receive particular attention and targeted investments, both to increase equity and leverage talent in the global competition.  There will be a shared sense that no one can be left behind.

The Inequality of Hidden Taxes

The 2020-21 “multi-demic” of the coronavirus, economic disruption, and racial unrest has prompted a wealth of promising ideas for how to improve everyone’s lives in terms of health and wellness, economic security, and racial equity.  As appealing as these ideas may be, they will face enormous implementation challenges and hurdles.

We have been here before — in 1968.  Atrocities in Vietnam, the King and Kennedy assassinations, and riots across the country from Watts to Washington precipitated general unrest.  The Kerner Commission addressed the riots and provided quite reasonable recommendations for addressing racism.  They were never implemented.  What challenges and hurdles deterred action then and might affect us now? 

There are certainly social and cultural divides underlying political deadlocks and occasionally deadly conflicts and violence.  We need to work, as some articulate, to “heal the soul of America.”  Such aspirations are similar to those following 1968.  Progress should, hopefully, provide a foundation for shared aspirations.

However, even if the social and cultural divides were ameliorated, we will still face enormously complex economic and political issues.  The United States is, quite intentionally, a highly fragmented ecosystem with responsibilities, resources, and discretion at national, state, and local levels.  This fragmentation hinders creation of integrated solutions for almost everything except possibly national security.

Lack of understanding of the causes and implications of this fragmentation causes widespread public misunderstanding of why seemingly good ideas encounter opposition and often fail.  I contend that increased public understanding of the complexity of the US ecosystem will enable enhanced advocacy and well-informed voting that, over time, will increase support for broadly-based initiatives.

Heath & Wellness

Consider three examples — health, education, and energy.  The US spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country, and achieves rather mediocre results, particularly for those challenged by social determinants of health.  Why does this happen?  Our health system is designed to address acute care rather than chronic care.  Chronic issues are judged to be responsibilities of individuals, rather than “the system.”

Healthcare providers make most of their profits from acute care for cancer, cardio, and ortho conditions.  Payers minimize expenditures on chronic care because the payoffs are too far into the future.  Providers, payers, drug companies, and medical device companies have optimized their organizations to prosper in these conditions.  They have become vested interests opposed to needed changes.

More specifically, over the past several decades in the US, wages have stagnated at an annual growth rate of 1-2%, particularly for low wage workers.  At the same, the costs of labor to employers have grown annually by 8-10%.  This difference is due to the steadily increasing costs of health insurance.  Healthcare providers charge patients with employer-based insurance roughly twice what they charge Medicare and Medicaid patients.  They make up their losses on these patients by over-charging others.

Put simply, people are sacrificing wage increases to pay health insurance increases to compensate for other people’s healthcare costs.  Employee co-pays have increased, but people still like their “free” insurance.  However, it is far from free as they have sacrificed possible substantial raises to this “hidden tax.”  People are unknowingly subsidizing patients for which the government will not pay the full costs of healthcare.  The government has masked this exploitation of wage earners.

Education

It would be great if everyone was healthy and educated.  A small proportion of the US population is very well educated, better than any other country.  However, the overall level of student achievement is well behind other OECD countries.  We do not invest in everyone and a large proportion of young people are left behind, particularly those in poorly performing K-12 schools.

16% of graduates produced by K-12 education are STEM ready.  This limits the number of STEM college graduates, whose average starting salaries are $40,000 higher than non-STEM graduates.  Another major problem is the limited number of non-college bound students who are unprepared to join the “skilled technical workforce” to manufacture, operate, and maintain the increasingly complex systems upon which our society depends.  Solving this problem requires transforming K-12, but local control of K-12 often stymies any changes.

The costs of a college education have soared, leading to student debt exceeding the US credit card debt.  This has delayed marriages and home purchases, as well as having children.  These escalating costs have actually replaced healthcare as the poster child for uncontrolled costs.  Faculty salaries have increased quite modestly, but the costs of administrative staffs and salaries have soared.  One well-known university system has more staff than students, not counting faculty members.

One driving force is the desire for tuition to be high for those who can pay it, while everyone else gets a 50% discount.  Another driving force is the need to provide remedial courses for those whose K-12 education was inadequate.  Then, there are the costs of advising, mentoring, placement, and mental health services for the many students not prepared to perform and compete in the supposed meritocracy of academia.  The classroom has become a decreasing element of higher education.  The end result is a “hidden tax” on both those who can afford it and particularly for those who cannot afford it.

Energy

There seems to be increasing acceptance, grudgingly by many, of the need to achieve carbon (and methane) neutrality to halt global warming.  This will require shifting to electrical power that relies on hydro, solar and wind energy, and possibly smaller, safer nuclear plants.  This will totally disrupt the fossil fuel industry, which is not a monolith – there are over 3,000 electric utilities and 9,000 fossil fuel companies in the US.

This fragmentation of the energy industry will make it quite difficult to formulate an agreed-upon path forward.  Government incentives, investments, and regulations, as well as training for new jobs, will be important.  Public understanding and engagement will also be critical.  We need methods to engender this understanding and engagement. 

Energy consumption is a central element of the energy domain.  Everyone pays increased taxes, directly or indirectly, to subsidize car ownership and usage.  There are “external costs” of automobiles, the measurable costs for parties other than the car owner.  Several studies have assessed the main externalities of driving to be the costs of congestion, accidents, air pollution, noise, climate change, nature and landscape damage, water pollution, oil pollution and energy dependency.

A variety of estimates hover around $0.33 per vehicle mile driven.  There are 3.3 trillion miles driven annually in the US, so the external costs are a bit over $1 trillion per year.  Dividing by 260 million US residents of driving age yields roughly $4,200 per person per year.  The number of cars owned is correlated with family income at 0.70.  The extent of car usage increases with income.  Thus, the “hidden tax” of $4,200 per year disproportionately affects lower income people, even those without cars.

This tax is very much hidden.  It is mostly paid by government, either now or eventually.  It includes the healthcare costs due to pollution, noise, temperature, etc.  Put simply, $4,200 is annually spent on each person in the US regardless of the extent of their driving.  This $1 trillion could be much better invested in health and education than in compensating for energy misuse.

Stakeholders

There are many millions of jobs associated with healthcare, education, and energy, as well as trillions of dollars of investments in the status quo.  Corporations, unions, and advocacy groups will resist transformation of these domains, despite the high costs and poor performance of healthcare and education, as well as the clear dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels.  Paychecks and corporate bonuses are at risk.

However, a society that is fair and equitable would not have these hidden taxes.  People with higher incomes would pay more of these costs, and they might declare them as tax deductions. People would get credit for paying for other people’s health, education, and energy consumption.  These hidden payments would become transparently apparent to everyone.

As reasonable as this may seem, it will face challenges from all the people being subsidized.  Their challenges will be tribal, perhaps couched as ideological, but the simple explanation is that they are used to getting benefits that they have not earned.  To avoid this loss, they will devise self-serving arguments about principles in conflict with their complete lack of truthfulness and integrity.

The public needs to be engaged and educated to understand the complex challenges we face.  They need to be well informed to wisely choose which policies to support and advocate.  This education and possibly demonstrations should be provided collaboratively by a range of partners representing economic and political interests, scientific and technical expertise, and the social and spiritual elements central to this ambitious societal endeavor. 

An equitable society does not impose hidden taxes, particularly taxes that penalize lower income people, often with them being unaware they are being taxed.  Instead, they feel their paychecks are somehow less and less sufficient to pay their bills.  Exposing hidden taxes can help to create a more equitable society.

Theory to Practice

According to Wikipedia, “Critical race theory is an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine the law as it intersects with issues of race and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice.  Critical race theory examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism.  This theory is loosely unified by two common themes: first, that white supremacy (societal racism) exists and maintains power through the law; and second, that transforming the relationship between law and racial power, and also achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination more broadly, are possible.”

Let us, at least for the sake of argument, accept this theory.  What do we then do?  How do we translate theory to practice?  Consider two extremes.  We could make sure that no one has privilege.  For example, we could work to assure that everyone’s educational opportunities and accomplishments mimic those who attend the worst schools.  Arithmetic would be the highest level of math taught to anyone.  Currently, 16% of high school graduates are “STEM ready” for college.  We could make sure that no one is STEM ready. 

OECD reports that 50% of US high school grads cannot read at an 8th grade level.  We could make sure that this is the highest achievement for all US high school grads.  Taken together, these two aspirations could enable eliminating all advanced placement courses in high schools.  We could also eliminate all summer camps for STEM and coding.  This would enable scaling back requirements that teachers have appropriate education for the courses they teach.  Lots of people could teach arithmetic, especially if all “advanced” operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – are taught with calculators.ß

The implication is that all technically skilled jobs would be outsourced to other countries that continue to produce graduates with leading-edge knowledge and skills.  Our high school graduates would work for them, performing administrative and manual tasks that they have not yet determined how to automate.  These would be very poorly-paid jobs as anyone could do them. 

Consider the following. “In 2018, the top 50% of US all taxpayers paid 97.1% of all individual income taxes, while the bottom 50% paid the remaining 2.9%. The top 1% paid a greater share of individual income taxes (40.1%) than the bottom 90% combined (28.6%).”  Eliminating high-performing individuals, over time, would shift the tax burden to the masses of poorly-paid people.  Consequently, government services such as Social Security and Medicare would be dramatically reduced.

Consider the other extreme.  We would right past wrongs, in part, by investing in assuring that all people are healthy, educated, and productive so as to be competitive in the global marketplace.  No one – no child, no teen, no adult – would be left behind.  We would invest in disabled and older adults to enable them to be involved, productive, and contributing to society.  No talents, competencies, and motivations would be wasted.

Consequently, the US would invest heavily in health and education, as well as in R&D to facilitate industry investments in productivity.  As amazing as this may seem, overall government investments in health, education, and productivity would decrease as healthy, educated, and productive people tend to have well-paying jobs and need less assistance.  They also tend to foster healthy, educated, and productive children.  It is a virtuous cycle that can be stimulated and sustained.

Back to critical race theory.  We may be able to broadly embrace it in principle.  However, what are going to do about it in practice?  One extreme would destroy the US economy.  The other extreme is admittedly very ambitious.  Do we really have a choice?  Giving up is predictably awful.  Aspiring to transformation can yield enormous upsides, albeit with some risks.  My bet is that we can make this work, perhaps differently that we currently expect, but with much more upside than folding our tents and retreating to the forests.

The Business of Lying

Bill Bryson’s remarkable book, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United State (William Morrow, 2001), chronicles the history of the English language in the US.  His chapters on travel, cooking, shopping, and advertising are particularly compelling.

A key element of Bryson’s story concerns how we are convinced to value, for example, cars, meals, and clothes as well as how advertising motivates us to buy into such stories.  Is this due to our being deceived or is there a deeper explanation?  First of all, proponents of a product or service can legally claim almost anything – marketing has been characterized as inherently lying.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the history of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has never ruled that false statements are totally without protection under the Constitution.  In United States constitutional law, false statements of fact are statements of fact (as opposed to points of law), that are false. Such statements are not always protected (or prevented) by the First Amendment.

When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.  False advertising is described as the crime or misconduct of advertisements that contain false, misleading, or deceptive statements to promote the sale of property, goods, or services to the public.

So, what happens when an advertisement lies?  One needs to file suit to block the advertisement.  This suit will wind its way through various courts until perhaps one wins, many years and many dollars later.  Thus, the risk of publishing a false advertisement is rather small, particularly if one has deep pockets.  Consumers have a right to know what they’re purchasing and its full price, but the costs of pursuing this right are steep.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates advertisements. The FTC operates by prevention over punishment. This means that if an advertiser is caught trying to publicize deceptive advertisements, the FTC will simply ask that they revise the advertisement.  However, false advertising claims can be filed in civil court if you have the patience and resources to prevail.

False advertising law says that if the plaintiff can prove their case if they can show that the advertising was false or misleading, the advertisers lied about something of importance, the consumer saw the false advertisement; and the consumer purchased the service or product because of the advertisement.  This seems straightforward but in practice can be quite difficult.

More broadly, marketing is often thought to be synonymous with lying.  Marketing, to many people, automatically means manipulation, lying, and corporate greed. “Ethical marketing” might as well be a joke. And marketing “gurus,” in particular, are suspected of habitually using marketing lies to manipulate potential customers.

However, consider what marketeers think about this.  They lie to consumers because consumers demand it. Marketers tell the stories consumers want to hear, and consumers believe them. Some marketers do it well.  Marketing is about taking data, facts, research and creating a story that people want to hear. Sure, it might be about selling something, but it is still a story based on perceived facts.

People want to believe that rugged pickup trucks and sleek sportscars increase one’s attractiveness.  They want to believe that beauty and attractiveness will result in successful relationships.  They want to believe that matriculation at particular colleges will guarantee lifelong success.  They want to believe such things and marketeers are all too happy to create stories that portray these “truths.”

Storytelling is only one part of marketing. Marketing also involves social conversations, via tools, technology, data, people, products, non-profits, donations, etc.  This is much larger than a simple statement of marketing is lying.  It is telling stories that people want to hear, e.g., a particular purchase will make you a more appealing person.  People want to believe that it is all that simple.

Marketeers argue that people can make decisions for themselves and are in control of the actions they take. Part of those actions or inactions is realizing the truth around them, that they do not need the latest gadget or that they can make a cheaper healthier meal for themselves if they spend 30 minutes cooking rather than opting for chips and cheese dip. They don’t need to give into the social pressures around them.

But the truth is, marketeers argue, people are lazy. They are unwilling to put in the effort to think for themselves. They don’t want to figure out what food is best. They don’t want to make an effort to take care of themselves.  Otherwise, self-inflicted heart disease would not be the top killer in the US. Or people would not want to smoke or do drugs to be cool. 

It is easier for people to not think, to let other people tell them what to do. And that lack of consumer initiative is what gives marketing a bad name. Typically, people after they make a bad decision blame everyone including marketing, but not themselves. “Oh, I didn’t realize that the hot cup of coffee I ordered was hot”.  Marketing gives people choices and how people want to choose or not, is their freedom and their responsibility.

The argument continues.  We also live in an age of transparency where anyone can spend five minutes searching for the truth about something before buying or being influenced.  With unprecedented access to information the only excuse for being “lied to” is a person’s lack of caring about themselves.  The majority of marketing efforts are based on data and research not someone thinking about how to make up a false claim to sell products.  It is about telling believable stories that people want to hear.

There appears to be a big distinction between public relations (PR) and marketing.  PR, marketing claims, communicates lies more often for the direct benefit of the brand.  Of course, there are brands that are created specifically to con people out of money, but there are outliers in every industry and should not be considered the rule.  It seems to me that this is an example of the pot demeaning the kettle.

I have summarized the gist of marketeers’ defense.  Where does that leave us?  We could just rely on caveat emptor, Latin for “let the buyer beware”, the principle that the buyer purchases at his own risk in the absence of an express warranty.  An ultimate example is a current TV ad for a prescription drug that ends with “May lead to severe depression and suicidal tendencies.  If this is not normal for you, contact your physician.”

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.  It does guarantee the veracity of what is said.  Consequently, political campaigns, in particular, often involve falsehoods that can border on slander.  These can be addressed with civil suits, that will be resolved years after the elections.  Facebook and Twitter have tried to curb the more outrageous of these tendencies, but new outlets quickly spring up to support the business of lying.  As Bryson aptly points out, we have been doing this for many centuries.

Making Money Without Providing Value

What if you could make money by selling people securities, or equivalent, that have no inherent value, but people think will eventually be worth substantially more than they paid you for them?  You can potentially make money from an endeavor that provides no value to the economy or society.  You can make money off of money despite the complete lack of intrinsic value.

Isn’t this how shares of stock work?  No, it is not.  Shares of stock provide partial ownership of a company that sells products and services to the marketplace, gains revenues from these sales, and makes profits from these sales and shares these profits with you, as an owner, via dividends.  If they are good at this, the values of their shares increase and your (very) partial ownership is more valuable.

A Ponzi scheme, according to Wikipedia, is “a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. The scheme leads victims to believe that profits are coming from legitimate business activity, and they remain unaware that other investors are the source of funds.”  This is a great example of a “something for nothing” investment that deludes investors.

According to Investopedia, “A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that is secured by cryptography, making it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. Many cryptocurrencies are decentralized networks based on blockchain technology—a distributed ledger enforced by a disparate network of computers. They are generally not issued by any central authority, rendering them theoretically immune to government interference or manipulation.”

Analytics Insight argues that, “Just like any other investment, crypto assets come with lots of risks, but also plenty of potential rewards. However, without a doubt, cryptocurrency is a great investment, especially if you want to acquire direct exposure to the demand for digital currency.”  In other words, such investments are worth it if you believe other people believe in them.

This brings us to market bubbles.  Bubbles eventually burst, whether joyful children playing with soapy water create them, or greedy people playing with other people’s money fashion them.  One of the earliest economic bubbles concerned tulip bulbs in Holland as chronicled by Mark Dash in Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (Broadway, 2001).

Tulipomania involved speculative buying and selling of rare tulip bulbs in the 1630s by Dutch citizens.  Coveted bulbs changed hands for amazingly increasing sums, until single bulbs were valued at more than the cost of a house.  When the bubble burst, the value of bulbs quickly plummeted and fortunes were lost.

We recently experienced a real estate bubble as chronicled by Michael in Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Norton, 2011) as well as Alan Blinder in After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead (Penguin. 2013).

In real estate mortgage markets, impenetrable derivative securities were bought and sold.  The valuations and ratings of these securities were premised on any single mortgage default being a random event.  In other words, the default of any particular mortgage was assumed to have no impact on the possible default of any other mortgage.

The growing demand for these securities pressured mortgage companies to lower the standards for these loans.  Easily available mortgages drove the sales of homes, steadily increasing home prices.   Loans with initial periods of low, or even zero, interest, attracted home buyers to adjustable-rate mortgages.  Many of these people could not possibly make the mortgage payments when the rates were adjusted after the initial period.

This real estate bubble led to people buying and flipping houses they often could not afford, but prices were rising so quickly they could move on before the adjustable-rate mortgage caught them.  One friend was building a house in Florida and someone offered him an audacious price. He accepted and starting building again. Another audacious price arrived. He accepted again and then again.

This was of less concern than one might think because people expected to flip these houses by selling them quickly at significantly increased prices.  This worked as long as prices continued increasing, but as more and more lower quality mortgages were sold, the numbers of defaults increased and dampened the increasing prices, which led to further increases of defaults.  The bubble quickly burst.

The overall phenomenon outlined in the post is about making money without providing value.  It about betting on other people’s greediness and gullibility when looking for quick, easy wins.  In contrast, there is the satisfaction of gaining a fair return for providing a highly valued product or service.  Either way, it is money in the bank, but these two approaches seem, to me, far from equivalent.

Games for Life

I have always enjoyed playing cards.  When growing up, card games were frequent in my family and quite serious in the sense that you did not joke around.  You seriously and studiously did your best to win.  I play cards every day, now online.  In this post, I consider how card games can help us to lead a cognitively rich life.

Of course, the first question must be, “How can card games contribute to cognitive health?”  Here are the five games I play every day and their characteristics that seem to relate to cognitive life skills.  First of all, consider the characteristics these games seem to have in common:

  • Competition against other players and random chance
  • Uncertainty about who has what cards and what cards remain hidden
  • Uncertainty about competitors’ strategies and plans for winning
  • Managing knowledge of what has happened and what is still possible

These seem to be skills we would like to sustain in general.  Now, let’s look at the specific games that I play each day.

Bridge: You have a partner and two competitors. Hands are played until there is a winner.  Someone always wins. Hands are likely to win when: 1) Points in hands support bids, 2) There is “transportation” between hands, and 3) You have stoppers for No Trump bids.

Cribbage: You have a competitor. Hands are played until there is a winner. Someone always wins. Hands are likely to win when: 1) You have double runs (8-16 points), 2) You have three 15s & 3 of kind (12-16), and 3) You avoid your opponent pegging 3 & 4 of a kind.

Gin Rummy: You have a competitor. Hands are played until there is a winner. Someone always wins. Hands are likely to win when: 1) You are dealt runs or 2–3 of a kind from the outset, 2) You draw low rather than high cards unless completing a run or 3 of a kind, and 3) You discard high cards early so your opponent does not catch you with points.

Hearts: You have three competitors. Hands are played until there is a winner. Someone always wins. Hands are likely to win when: 1) You have Clubs & Diamonds stoppers, 2) You have no low Hearts unless you have many Hearts, and 3) Your opponents discard high hearts.

Solitaire:  You have no competitors other than chance. One hand is played. There are no “Foundation Piles” where you can move aces, twos, etc. You will seldom win without Foundation Piles. Hands are likely to win when: 1) There is balance across values – no three Kings and four aces, 2) There is balance across black and red cards, 3) You can manage uncovering right columns, and 4) Your Kings are not trapped.

Overall Strategies

Three strategies work for all five card games:

  • Know what has been played
  • Know what competitors have drawn
  • Know what is no longer available

Observations

Several insights can guide how you proceed:

  • Potential winnability of hand is often readily apparent; restart if winning is impossible
  • When game involves multiple hands, losing a hand is not fatal
  • Switching from one game to another can require a cognitive reset

The last point is particularly relevant to older folks like me.  Brain games, I think, are more helpful when they force you to switch gears and not just rely on well-learned patterns.  For example, in cribbage, cards that add to 15 are important but irrelevant in bridge.  When first switching from cribbage to bridge, I look at my hand and see the 15s. I immediately need to do a cognitive reset because 15s are no longer relevant.  The speed of my reset often amazes me.

I think, but have no real evidence, that this improves my cognitive health.  Frequently having to switch gears between one game format to another keeps me, I think, being cognitively limber, sort of like cognitive stretching.  My one mile plus walk each day is supposed to help my physical stretching, but I am not as enthusiastic about this challenge.  The competitive nature of the walking challenge is not as much fun!

 

Intuitions That Mislead Us

One of my recent readings has been the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. (Flatiron Books, 2018).  It is a fascinating read, loaded with valuable insights.

Hans Rosling asked chimpanzees to answer 13 multiple-choice questions about the state of the world.  Each question had three choices (A, B & C).  For each question, he provided each chimpanzee with three bananas, with stickers on each for A, B and C.  Whichever banana a chimp picked up first indicated their response to the question.  Not surprisingly, the chimps scored 33% correct, outscoring 90% of humans asked the same questions.  Rosling’s book provides an in-depth exploration of why this happened.

He attributes humans’ poor performance to ten human instincts that mislead us and trap us in outdated world views.

  • The gap instinct – Separating things into two opposing sets, e.g., us and them, rather than seeing a continuum
  • The negativity instinct – Focusing on negative outcomes, e.g., in the news, causing expectations of the worst
  • The straight-line instinct – Projecting linear trends rather than understanding countervailing forces
  • The fear instinct – Fearing unlikely outcomes that our ancestors my have experienced but are now very unlikely
  • The size instinct – Focusing on large numbers rather than calibrating them against baselines such as using per capita estimates
  • The generalization instinct — Automatically categorizing and generalizing, possibly stereotyping; look for differences within groups and similarities across groups
  • The destiny instinct – Assuming innate characteristics determine destinies; transformations are occurring across societies; slow change differs from no change
  • The single perspective instinct – Preferences for single causes and solutions; single perspectives likely miss the essence of problems; multiple perspectives needed
  • The blame instinct – Tendencies to seek clear, simple reasons for bad outcomes, often attributed to human actions within systems that facilitate these bad outcomes
  • The urgency instinct — Desires to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger; leading to fear, stress, and far too often bad decisions and actions

He explains how factfulness can be applied in education, health, business, journalism, and politics.  His overall argument is that a fact-based world view combined with refined critical thinking can help overcome these debilitating instincts.  We can outsmart the chimpanzees.  By the way, he never actually ran that experiment.  The outcome was completely predictable without enticing chimps into eating so many bananas.

Rosling’s discussion of ten instincts that regularly mislead us reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a wonderful integration of his many years of research with Amos Tversky on psychological heuristics and biases, findings that I have long tracked.  It is quite interesting how people steadfastly mislead themselves, resulting in unfortunate decisions and consequences.

These ten instincts frequently undermine business strategies by fostering bad assumptions about future market situations, including an enterprise’s presumed competitiveness in that future.  I address this in great detail in my books Start Where You Are: Matching Your Strategy to Your Marketplace (Jossey-Bass, 1996) and Don’t Jump to Solutions: Thirteen Delusions that Undermine Strategic Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 1998).  It is all too common for executives teams to ignore current facts, often because it is socially unacceptable to admit what is happening.

The Wild West of Commodity Trading

I recently read Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s The World for Sale: Money, Power, and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources (Oxford University Press, 2021).  This fascinating book reads like a novel, almost a page turner.  What will the traders do next?

They chronicle the history of commodity traders of oil, grain, metals, and almost anything.  They focus on four case studies that illustrate how the markets for natural resources were transformed:

  • Opening up of markets that had previously been tightly controlled – above all, oil.
  • Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which redrew a global network of economic relationships and political allegiances.
  • The spectacular economic growth of China in the first decade of this century.
  • Financialization of the global economy and the growth of the banking sector, beginning in the 1980s.

Developing counties nationalized their natural resource industries.  Traders took control away from big players, e.g., Seven Sisters in oil.  The result was that markets, not providers, set commodity prices.  Commodity traders tended to be risk takers, e.g., Marc Rich, who would bet on prices swings, often making enormous profits.  Blas and Farchy report on some of his amazing deals, e.g., rescuing Jamaica from insolvency.

Wikipedia describes “Marc Rich (as) an international commodities trader, hedge fund manager, financier, businessman, and (indicted) financial criminal. He founded the commodities company Glencore, and was later indicted in the United States on federal charges of tax evasion and making oil deals with Iran during the Iran hostage crisis.  He fled to Switzerland at the time of the indictment and never returned to the United States. He received a widely criticized presidential pardon from U.S. President Bill Clinton on January 20, 2001, Clinton’s last day in office; Rich had made large donations in his lifetime to the Democratic Party and Israeli organizations.”  Rich died in 2013 at 78.

The 1990s saw the rise of futures, options, and derivatives.  Commodity futures had been is use for hundreds of years.  Options could be used to hedge the downsides of futures.  This enabled the financialization of the oil market, including a new generation of math whizz-kids fluent in the language of Wall Street.  Who you knew, long the strong suite of commodity traders, was joined by what you knew in terms of financial analytics expertise.

Next up – the collapse of Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  The collapse led to the complete fragmentation of natural resource markets and opportunities for commodity traders to buy for prices far below market prices. The risks of doing business in the new Russia were substantial. The rules on private ownership of property were still being written, and there was no guarantee that a trader would be allowed to hold on to its share of Russia’s natural resources industry.  The tycoons and gangsters soon got involved and murders were frequent.  By the late 1990s, Vladimir Putin was in charge and western traders exited with what profits they could.  These commodity traders had taught the Russian oligarchs how to play the game.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had huge impacts on countries that depended on it such as Cuba.  When the price of oil soared and the price of sugar plummeted, Cuba was in trouble.  The traders paid in advance for Cuba’s sugar, who used the funds to buy oil through the traders, who were later paid in sugar, which they sold on the world market.  This worked until sugar crop yields weakened due to inability to afford fertilizers and pesticides.

The 15 new countries formed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union had natural resources, but little money.  The traders responded by setting up a system of barters involving oil, alumina, corn, milk, etc.  The “wild west” atmosphere was charged with corruption and conflicts, sometimes bloody.  What was paid for wasn’t always what was delivered, e.g., “aluminum that rusted.”  For the trading industry, it was a Darwinian period of consolidation which only the strongest survived.

Shell and BP started trading functions, but avoided risky countries.  Enron moved from trading of gas and electricity into trading virtually anything regardless of risk.  They went out of business in December 2001, filing for bankruptcy in a massive accounting fraud.  CEO Jeffrey Skilling and chairman Kenneth Lay were both found guilty of multiple counts of conspiracy and fraud. Its collapse was one of the largest ever in corporate America, transforming the crooked Enron logo into a symbol of impropriety.

China is the next case study, where Deng Xiaoping, the successor to Mao Zedong, unleashed three decades of spectacular growth in China.  The Chinese economic boom started almost immediately after Deng unveiled his reforms in 1978, but it didn’t make a significant impact on commodity markets until much later. However, by 2018, China had become the world’s biggest consumer of commodities by far, along with Brazil, Russia, India, et al.

Commodity prices soared.  Commodity traders that bet on these trends did very well.  Commodity traders would fall over one another to secure the precious raw materials necessary to feed China and other emerging markets’ seemingly bottomless appetites for commodities. And oil was the most prized resource of all.  The market for commodity options also soared.

Out of this reactive mix of a world desperate for oil and petrostates hungry for cash sprang two companies that leapt into the big league of global oil trading in just a few years — Mercuria and Gunvor who became critical outlets for Russia’s oil, helping to keep the billions of dollars flowing into the Kremlin’s coffers and providing a young president Putin the confidence to become more assertive on the world stage.  Their ability to connect Russian oil supply with Chinese when the market was booming had made them all rich.

Africa benefitted greatly from the increasing global demand for natural resources.  During the 1980s and 90s, the economies of African countries had suffered from low prices. During the 2000s, the economy of sub-Saharan Africa quadrupled.  Corruption increased as leaders had to be bribed for access to countries’ resources.  Commodity traders became the gatekeepers, providing these leaders a range of side benefits. Nevertheless, the African middle class benefitted from the economic growth.

The late 2000s brought the global financial crises, precipitated in part by the real state crisis in the US.  The crisis in credit markets was imperiling the global banking sector by the spring of 2008.  The commodity traders “shorted” futures markets, resulting in enormous profits.  It was a boom time for speculation.

In the late 2000s, bad weather led to soaring food prices and contributed to protests that precipitated the Arab Spring.  Commodity traders became more central than ever in feeding the world – which allowed them to make the biggest profits they’d ever seen.  Ethanol mandates, in part due to soaring oil prices, championed by traders in this area, further reduced the flow of corn into the food supply chain.

Politicians were soon protesting these outcomes and advocating regulation of the industry.  When one of the biggest players went public, i.e., conducted an IPO, an increasingly transparent world resulted, making it ever harder for less scrupulous commodity traders to make money through corruption or bribery.  It was a shift that some in the industry would later come to regret, as the greater visibility of the public markets also meant greater awareness of the scale and significance of the commodity traders.

Seemingly from every side, the industry was under fire. It was not just the corruption probes that were darkening the outlook.  In part that was because the great engine of the commodity boom, China, was slowing down.  However, the traders had several far deeper and more structural problems. The first was the democratization of information.  A second challenge to the traders’ profitability was threatened by the reversal of the liberalization of global trade.  Finally, as the world increasingly turned against oil and coal consumption, the traders’ business suffered.

But if anyone had thought the commodity traders were going to sail off quietly into the sunset, or that the world could somehow find a way of functioning without them, they would have been sorely mistaken. There may be pressure on the business model the commodity traders have hewn to over the past half century, but their position at the heart of the world’s commerce in natural resources means that they remain as essential to the global economy as ever.  The traders will likely remain powerful actors in world affairs for years to come. But after decades in the shadows, their influence can surely no longer be ignored.

 

On Being Colonized

During the Era of Colonialism (late 1400s to the mid- to late 1900s), European powers colonized most of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, Oceania, the Middle East and the Arctic, excluding Antarctica.  This typically involved oppression and exploitation of indigenous ethnic and racial groups inside the geographical area colonized.  This oppression and exploitation often is reasonably characterized as genocide.

For example, between 1492 and 1600, 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas died. About 55 million people perished because of violence and never before seen diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza.  Another example is the impact of Burmese pythons “colonizing” the southernmost regions of Everglades National Park. Populations of raccoons dropped 99 percent, opossums 99 percent, and bobcats 88 over a 15 year period.

Apex predators simply destroy peoples or species that are not prepared to compete for survival.  Thinking about this phenomenon reminded me of experiences Alan Blumberg, John Casti and I had when participating in the shooting of the History Channel two-hour special Threats to Earth.  All three of us were featured in numerous interview snippets on how various naturally occurring, human-caused, and alien-initiated threats might affect civilization.

Let’s jump right to aliens!  First, they wouldn’t show up in rafts or rowboats.  They would have to be rather sophisticated to find us.  Indeed, they could easily be more sophisticated than us.  Perhaps they would want to colonize Earth.  We would become workers – or food.  They might breed us to create the choicest cuts.  We would learn how to digest and thrive on plant-based foods.  Their diseases might wipe us out.  They would move on to other planets, like most talented apex predators.

Perhaps we could reason with the aliens, convince them we are far superior to cattle, pigs, and chickens.  However, they are likely looking for food, not friends.  Then we might fight them, everyone equipped with an AR-47, backed up by DoD’s military might.  But their weapons could make ours look like bows, arrows, and spears.  They perhaps could dematerialize a squadron of F-35s in seconds.  Our last chance might be to offer tribute if we can figure out what they value – adoration might not make it.

This could be social justice coming full circle.  After imposing a half-millennium of genocide on the world, we get to experience the full rath of an apex predator who is simply trying to feed its hungry population.  We may have thought that our approaches to them were all in good taste, but they were simply pleased that humans taste good.

Humans as Apex Predators

Simon Winchester’s latest book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World (Harper, 2021), caused me to think about humans’ roles in the overall ecosystem. Are we apex predators, meaning that we regularly eat many other species but no other species regularly eats us?

The contrast that interests me is not apex versus non apex. It is apex predator versus social, caring animals. Winchester’s panorama of humans dominating geography and displacing (too kind a word) other peoples, ranging from native Americans to aboriginal Australians, certainly provides evidence of predation rather than social caring.

Beyond displacing others, Europeans enslaved millions of native Americans and many more millions of Africans. Seemed like predation to me. There is no way to spin this positively. Instead, it could be characterized as genocide.  These atrocities are brilliantly chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s profound book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020).

What is different about human predators is that we eventually realize what we have been doing. In democracies, the oppressed eventually get to articulate what they have experienced. Public opinion evolves to be sympathetic to these complaints. There are attempts to make amends, although not without strong forces attempting to defend that status quo.

That is perhaps understandable, but it still begs the central question.  To what extent are we apex predators versus social, caring animals?  It seems to me that the historical evidence supports our inherent tendencies to apex predation, followed by reflections on our dominance and entertaining the possibility of being social, caring animals. This is quite different than a lion regretting that he or she ate you.

This suggests there is hope that human animals might consider — in advance — the implications of their actions on others, whether the others be indigenous populations or other species. Thus, despite being apex predators, we can work to moderate our dominant behaviors to be less fundamentally disruptive to the overall ecosystem.  This work will be very difficult and progress will likely be quite slow, but it is what social, caring animals should do.

Perspectives on Work

I recently finished James Suzman’s fascinating book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots (Penguin Press, 2021).  He chronicles humans’ work practices over many millennia.  The meaning of work has changed dramatically over this period.  Perspectives that we take for granted emerged much more recently than one might have expected.

We were hunter gathers until 10-12 millennia ago.  Work involved finding enough food to consume that day.  Such work required roughly 15 hours per week.  Once agriculture emerged, the time worked increased to enable harvesting and storing food for the future.  This was caused, in part, by dramatic drops of temperatures that meant one could not live off the land for the whole year.

Time spent working continued to increase, but this was not driven by the “food quest” as he terms it.  The work required to feed ourselves – per capita – has steadily decreased.  1.3% of the US population is engaged in producing food.  10.9% of the population is involved in processing and serving food, more than half of which work in food service establishments.  Thus, the work of roughly 9 out of 10 US residents do not directly involve the food quest.

A key insight is that the hunter gathers did not have much “stuff.”  Any stuff they had, they had to carry as they moved about.  Consequently, they were not the consumers on which our current economy is totally dependent.  Conspicuous consumption emerged much, much later.

The agricultural revolution enabled population growth that depended on sustained growth.  Circumstances often prevented this.  Subsequently, the industrial revolution enabled population growth that also depended on sustainable growth.  Other circumstances prevented this.  Both led to periodic starvation, accompanied by public health issues challenges due to population growth that led to declining adult life expectancy.

John K. Galbraith (1908-2006) argued that Americans had everything they needed and wasted money purchasing things they did not need.  Advertising stoked consumer demands, as it continues to do.  Advertising was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1729 to sell his brainchild Franklin Stoves via his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) predicted that linear economic growth cannot compete with exponential growth of population.  He missed the prospects of technological innovation. Suzman discusses other perspectives of various thought leaders on the economic value of labor, including Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) aphorism that “time is money,” Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) The Wealth of Nations, David Ricardo’s (1772-1823) Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) Utilitarianism, and Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) Das Kapital.  They all wrestled with defining the value of work in contrast to economic value not attributable to work.

Suzman argues that dogs were, effectively, the first robots, used to do work rather than being eaten.  This was a rather unique argument to me.  He includes other domesticated animals in this argument as well, although Sony and others have yet to provide robotic chickens, pigs, and cows to help out around the home.  He notes that horses replaced oxen and cattle as workers; the latter became food.

Suzman moves on to slavery.  While Aristotle imagined machines replacing slaves, Rome eventually was substantially dependent on slaves to enable the agricultural ecosystem.  Clearly, the goal was to delegate physical labor to other peoples – or species.  Our pursuits of automation nicely fit here.  The goal was to avoid the costs of labor unless, of course, one owned the labor.  Then, one wanted to minimize the costs of sustaining the labor resource.

Agricultural productivity yielded surpluses that enabled feeding others, leading to the growth of cities with populations that consumed rather than grew food.  New jobs included soldiers, architects, construction workers, and shop keepers.  People tended to affiliate with people in similar jobs, often clustered in the equivalent of neighborhoods, to form communities of practice.  Family affiliations were diluted a bit when so many neighbors were not relatives.

Literacy enabled cities to establish functioning bureaucracies and legal systems to organize and manage large populations and projects.  Economic progress led to economic differentiation among the wealthy, middle class, and lower classes.  This led to what Keynes termed “relative needs,” or keeping up with the Joneses.  Inequality, Aristotle argued, became an inescapable fact of life.  Suzman points out this was not the case for hunter gatherer communities.

Cotton and sugar from slave labor if the US and Caribbean fueled the economies of Europe with increasingly machine-driven textile mills leading the way.  Growing agricultural productivity quickly reduced the needs for human labor, driving people to the cities to work in the mills.  Coal became the primary energy source for steam engines, while also fouling the environment.  Suzman reports that the jobs in these mills were miserable, in terms of both working conditions, safety, and health.

The industrial revolution led to a stream of new products and novelties, ushering in the embrace of conspicuous consumption, first for the wealthy but trickling down over time to everyone.  Clothing tended to the luxury of choice.  Without the demands for mass-produced goods, the many factories would not have been built and the enormous numbers of manufacturing jobs would not have been created, paying wages that enabled these workers to also buy these mass-produced goods.

Suzman reviews Frederick W. Taylor’s (1856-1915) scientific management.  Taylor helped Henry Ford cut production time per vehicle from 12 hours to 93 minutes.  He set the stage for human resource management.  Taylor felt that people worked to make money to buy things.  They did not make products; factories did.

Unions were legalized in the UK in 1871 and in the US in 1935.  Work hours per workweek steadily declined until Henry Ford popularized the five-day 40-hour work week in 1926.  During the Depression, Kellogg cut workdays to 6 hours, until workers lobbied to return to 8-hour days, leading to larger paychecks.

By the 1980s, worker productivity and wages became decoupled.  The rising costs of employment benefits, namely healthcare, depressed wage increases.  Deregulation played a role as well.  “Since the Great Decoupling, asset ownership has proved a far more lucrative way of generating additional wealth than hard work.”

Between 1978 and 2016, US workers gained 11.7% in wages; CEOs saw a 937% increase in renumeration, due mostly to McKinsey’s deceitfully framed “war for talent.”  This contributed to the 2008-2009 crash that undermined the public’s confidence in economists, and subsequently climate scientists and epidemiologists.

He discusses the growth of service sector.  Manufacturing absorbed displaced agricultural workers and services are absorbing displaced manufacturing workers. He contrasts valuable jobs (e.g., teaching, medicine, farming, and scientific research with pointless jobs (e.g., corporate lawyers, public relations executives, health and academic administrators, and financial service providers).

“There is evidence of bureaucratic bloat everywhere, but the scale of it only becomes clear when looking at how it has afflicted organizations and institutions like universities, whose basic purpose has not changed substantially for centuries.”  Over 20+ years, teaching faculties have increased by roughly 3% while administrative staff have grown by well over 200%, while the number of clerical, service, and maintenance jobs decreased by one third.

Suzman addresses death by overwork.  Mental health challenges are common as is workaholic tendencies – the unhappy union of high drive and low work satisfaction.  “The global aggregate from Gallup data collected in 2014, 2015 and 2016 across 155 countries indicates that just 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their job. Two-thirds are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.”

“Since the Great Decoupling, the wealthiest 1 percent of people globally has captured twice as much of the new wealth generated by economic growth as the rest of us. The richest 10 percent of people on earth now own an estimated 85 percent of all global assets, and the richest 1 percent own 45 percent of all global assets.”

Suzman concludes with, “History is a better guide to the future on the nature of change. It reminds us that we are a stubborn species: one that is deeply resistant to making profound changes in our behavior and habits, even when it is clear that we need to do so. But it also reveals that when change is forced upon us, we are astonishingly versatile. We are able to quickly adapt to new, often very different ways of doing and thinking about things and in a short time become as habituated to them as we were to those that preceded them.”

Work, a very long ago, involved simply finding enough to eat that day, consuming roughly 15 hours per week.  The agricultural and industrial revolutions dramatically changed this.  Much more time was required, often involving harsh, unsafe, and unhealthy working conditions.  Life is easier in the service economy, but apparently not particularly rewarding.  Inequality has dramatically escalated and, for many, the quest for food — and clothing, shelter, health, etc. – has become an increasing challenge.  Automation technology may exacerbate this unless we revisit and transform the relationship of work productivity to income and sustenance.

 

Rules for Robots

Isaac Asimov introduced three rules for robots in his 1942 short story “Runaround,” which is included in his 1950 collection I, Robot.

  • “First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

I spent two decades studying how computers can adaptively aid humans to perform tasks, particularly in multi-task situations.  We developed a design framework and, in 1994, formulated the first law of adaptive aiding, building on Asimov’s formulation.  “There are conditions under which it is appropriate for computers to intervene and assume authority for task performance; in contrast there are no conditions under which it is appropriate for computers to unilaterally hand tasks to humans.”

Consider how such laws or rules might apply to AI-based cognitive assistants to support task performance in health, education, finance and other domains.  Such cognitive assistants are intended to support both the providers and consumers of services, e.g., both clinicians and patients in healthcare.  The use case of particular interest involves accessing and digesting information to make decisions.

Consider Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri on steroids such that it deeply understands medicine and healthcare, the structure and content of education, or financial principles and processes.  What would we like to expect from such cognitive assistants, whether we are a provider or consumer of services?  What capabilities and behaviors would we like, and what inclinations of these assistants would hopefully be absent?

Here are my ten desires:

  1. I want to be able to trust what it tells me
  2. I want evidence for assertions, if I feel it is necessary
  3. I want to be able to choose how evidence is presented – verbal, written or graphical
  4. I want explanations for recommendations
  5. I want context-specific explanations that reflect my circumstances
  6. I want it to remember me and my preferences
  7. I want it to remember my past decisions and the basis for these decisions
  8. I want to interact with it as I would another person
  9. I want to be able to talk with a real human, if I feel it is necessary

10. I want the real human to be someone I know or at least in a position I recognize

I want to avoid the following:

  1. I do not want my data shared unless I provide explicit permission
  2. I do not want to have to provide information it should already know
  3. I do not want to do much typing; speaking would be easier
  4. I do not want recommendations that are not evidence-based
  5. I do not want assertions or recommendations that cannot be explained
  6. I do not want to feel that I am expected to understand domain nuances
  7. I do not want to feel that the range of my questions is limited
  8. I do not want to feel that it is controlling the process of interacting
  9. I do not want to feel that I am just a generic person

10. I do not want to feel that I am interacting with a chatbot

These two sets of preferences pose interesting design challenges.  First, are they representative of everybody’s preferences?  Second, are some more important than others?  Third, how do design choices influence the extent to which these preferences are fulfilled?  The only way I can think of successfully addressing these challenges is via human-centered design, a process of considering and balancing the value, concerns, and perceptions of all of the major stakeholders in a design initiative.

People will tend to engage with, and perhaps pay for, services that comply with these rules for robots.  Their engagement will expand to the extent that their confidence increases.  To the extent that services do not comply with these rules, they will eventually cancel their subscriptions, delete the app, and continue their search for robots that comply.  Providers should be aware that people will not compensate for robots’ deficiencies by supplying their own labor.  They will have high expectations.

One Overarching Goal

Many problems and potential fixes are being considered and debated to address the pandemic, associated economic slump, and economic and social inequities. Climate change is hovering in the wings.  How do all these potential initiatives fit together? I think we can integrate all of these ideas by thinking about how they all support pursuit of one overarching goal: Foster a healthy, educated and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.

Who plays an important role in pursuit of the goal?  Every aspect of our economy and society has an important role to play in achieving this goal.

Health & Wellness Services need to invest in keeping people healthy — physically, mentally, and socially – and engaged in the economy and society.  Minimizing the population of those unhealthy and unwell will greatly reduce economic burdens. This will result in both money earned and money saved with everyone healthy and productively contributing.

Educational Institutions need to invest in fully educating 100% of the population to have the knowledge and skills to gain fulfilling and rewarding employment. Society needs 100% of citizens to be capable of contributing to rather than consuming public resources. Poor education undermines the nation’s talent stream, undercutting productivity needed for competitiveness.

Energy Providers need to invest in energy infrastructure that will keep everyone productive, affordably healthy, transported, and heated or cooled as needed.  Ignoring the impacts of climate change will incur $ trillions of remediation costs – repeatedly.  Prevention and early mitigation are more affordable and will create much innovation and many good jobs in the process.

Security Agencies need to invest in protecting the national and economic interests of the US against all competitors & adversaries.  A priority should be to avoid poached competitive advantage, which subsequently provides little if any advantage. Oppressed peoples need help if they are to become talented strategic partners.

Industry needs to invest in training and job aiding to enhance workforce productivity and quality of work outcomes.  Poorly trained and poorly paid workers are marginally productive, at best.  Investments in technology should be used to augment rather than replace human workers.  Such workers will become the backbone of the skilled technical workforce resulting from achieving the overarching goal.

Government, of course, has a role in all of the above. One role is leadership in getting the wide range of stakeholders to commit to a national agenda for success.  This includes communicating the vision for how the overall goal can be achieved.  Finally, it also involves incentivizing and often investing or co-investing in initiatives to advance towards this goal.

Too Many Stakeholders and Too Many Ideas

There are many complex contexts that involve a wide range of stakeholders with a broad array of ideas for improving the context of interest.  Such contexts can range from neighborhoods to wards to cities to states and countries.  I am involved in one right now with 200+ ideas; a few years ago, I played a central role in a context with 1,000+ ideas.

Typically, each idea is linked to one or more committed stakeholders who anxiously hope their idea will be chosen for investment.  Yet, the overall organization can only seriously commit to and execute perhaps five ideas.  How does one winnow a set of hundreds or perhaps thousands of proposed initiatives to five?

The first step is to cluster similar ideas.  This often reduces the number of alternatives by a factor of ten or so.  It is important to communicate to stakeholders that they are now co-owners of a cluster.  This provides important feedback that their suggestion had an impact.  It also provides them a venue, albeit much smaller, for advocacy of their idea.

So, now we have perhaps 20-30 clusters.  How do we get to five?  Now we need to consider attributes of clusters – potential impacts and costs of the pursuit, as well as likelihoods of success.  This can lead to surprises.  For example, planting trees at the corner of 5th and Green Streets scores well versus providing after school tutors for all pre-school students, which would be very expensive and raise school taxes.

This suggests a portfolio approach.  Perhaps the portfolio can include three low cost, low risk obvious winners; one moderate cost, moderate risk initiative that may benefit many; and one high cost, high risk aggressive initiative that may benefit everybody.  This yields a 60% chance of winning results, perhaps a 70% chance of better than that and an 80% chance of a home run.

The key is to get all the key stakeholders to understand the portfolio.  Moderate success is almost guaranteed.  Greater success is likely.  Total success is a stretch, but most of the investment portfolio is a likely winner.  The overall idea is to transform hundreds and perhaps thousands of ideas into successes such that key stakeholders are fully aware that they influenced and can take pride in this achievement.

Beyond the mechanics of the decision process outlined above, the absolute key ingredient is stakeholder involvement in the process.  People need to feel that they influenced the formulation of the clusters and had opportunities to advocate for their preferences.  Their favored options may not have made the cut, but they should feel that the results were arrived at openly and fairly.

So, what happened in the situation with 1,000+ ideas?  Nothing at all!  The leader was unwilling to antagonize anyone by not supporting their idea, so none of the ideas were supported.  The spreadsheet with 1,000+ ideas was archived.  A plan was developed that was so general that it could possibly include any of the 1,000+ ideas and possibly any other ideas.  In fact, the plan was sufficiently general that it could be readily adopted by any other institution.  This plan was not a source of competitive advantage.

Transform Work to Transform Culture

Most organizations want members of their workforce to be more collaborative, share information, and make better and faster decisions.  These pursuits are often termed workforce culture transformation.  For very large organizations, for example, elements of the federal government, this can be a daunting aspiration.

Consider experiences with two examples of transforming work.  Over the past couple of decades, computing and networking have transformed the processing of paper into processing computer files of documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides.  My paper files have all but disappeared, replaced by over 50,000 files on my laptop.

All of us have learned new skills as this transformation has evolved.  For example, efficiently finding items among 50,000 files requires an organized hierarchy of folders with file names that include dates of creation or update and version numbers.  Further, Y2K taught us a bit about specifying dates.  I will be all set for Y3K!

The second example of transforming work is much more recent.  Over the past year, we have, perhaps unwillingly, embraced Teams, Zoom and other platforms for online meetings, education, and virtual get-togethers with family and friends.  There are social limitations, e.g., no after meeting drinks, but online gatherings are better than expected.

Another transformation, less of work than personal life, is how we shop.  Online retail was quickly growing before the pandemic, but has subsequently accelerated.  I bought all the new furniture for my apartment in Washington, DC while sitting in a comfortable armchair with my laptop.  When I arrived in DC, everything had arrived, watched over by the concierge.  I still find it amazing that you can buy a couch this way.

The “work” of our professional and personal lives has been transformed.  Has this made us more collaborative, inclined to share information, and better and faster decision making?  Consider these experiences:

  • My network of professional relationships has greatly expanded due to meeting attendance being logistically much easier.  In addition, the number of people viewing my public presentations has been much greater than when limited to physical attendance.
  • My inclinations to seek information to support problem solving and decision making have steadily increased, as has my willingness to share information, especially if the information is publicly available, but the recipient was not aware of this.
  • My decisions are better informed, both by evidence sought and by comments and suggestions from people in my professional network.  Decisions are faster, but whether they are better is still uncertain.  I have been able to get rid of bad ideas quickly.

There is a pervasive factor underlying these experiences.  I trust the people with whom I am interacting to be open and honest.  I trust the information sources I query, particularly if the people I trust have recommended these sources.  I trust the dialogues associated with the decisions entertained and scrutinized.  A culture of trust is precious and a culture of distrust can be totally debilitating.

Returning to the original question of cultural transformation, I think it can reasonably be argued that the transformation of professional and personal work has affected the culture of work.  Notice that all the changes indicated have resulted from the experiences of working differently, not from training on how better to collaborate or make decisions.  Training on how to work differently is nevertheless warranted.

Another factor is the design of work.  Work tasks that are redesigned to require collaboration and require access to and sharing of information are likely to facilitate and enhance these behaviors.  If it is required that decisions be evidence based, workers will learn how to access, analyze, and present evidence, perhaps abetted by appropriate training.  These skills will likely help them with career advancement.

Technology and circumstances have transformed how we work, but these changes have, quite reasonably, focused on how to do the work as we have long done it.  We now have the opportunity to redesign this work to better leverage these pervasive capabilities.  I expect our collective redesign of work, if fostered by trust, will further transform our culture of collaboration, information sharing, and decision making.

How to Be a Republican

I grew up in New England in the 1960s and 70s.  My whole family was Republican.  We supported John Chafee, Edmund Brooke, Eliot Richardson, and Nelson Rockefeller.  Social liberals and fiscal conservatives.  These types of Republicans are long gone.  Nixon, then Reagan, and recently Trump discovered that courting southern whites could win elections.  Social liberalism was gone and fiscal conservatism only applied after the elite garnered the spoils.

I personally liked the debates between the conservatives and the liberals.  William F. Buckley and George Will on one side and Daniel Moynihan and John Kenneth Galbraith on the other.  I watched such debates with my grandmother as a ten-year old and was captivated.  The basic idea was to present a line of reasoning and then defend it.  It was great fun for both sides of the argument.  In the process, I learned much about politics and government.

Given that everything I admired in the Republican Party has been expunged from the party, my only choice is to be an Independent.  I could, of course, affiliate with the Democratic Party, but I am not in favor of the US evolving into a single party state.  We need contrasting points of view that are well argued with compelling evidence.  Conservative and liberal views need to be discussed and debated.  The public needs to understand the pros and cons of these contrasting views.

How might that happen?  I was immersed in it via Firing Line, McLaughlin Report, and other politics-oriented shows that brought together conflicting points of view for argument, discussion, and debate.  CNN and Fox, in contrast, separate the conflicts to different cable channels.  Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp take this segregation of perspectives to an extreme.  You only are exposed to opinions with which you already agree.

In an earlier post, I argued that we need to return to pubs, get off the couch, and roost on barstools next to whoever might be there to hear and engage with conflicting opinions.  A great example of evidence-based discussion and debate concerns sports.  When arguing about the GOAT (greatest of all time) in any sport, anyone can now immediately access data to support their arguments on their iPhone or equivalent.  It can be rather compelling.

Interestingly, I have found that people never assert “alternative facts” about sports.  Statistics for batting averages, touchdowns thrown, and three-point baskets are accepted as correct.  Statistics on the weather are similarly accepted.  Economic data fares pretty well too.  Public health data was once well accepted, but has become politicized of late. Political polling data are, rightfully, less credible.

Discussions based on data mutually judged to be valid can still lead to disagreements, not about what we know, but about what to do.  The conservative and liberal pundits noted above were great at this.  Moynihan captured the essence of this in a memo to Nixon, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”  Most people I chat with in local pubs would agree with this assertion.

Another place where free and informed discussion reigned were town meetings that I experienced growing up in a small New England town.  The annual town meeting provided everyone an opportunity to discuss and vote on the annual town budget.  Data and plans were presented and participants requested chances to speak.  The debate could be heated, but a vote eventually happened and the budget was set.  I am not at all sure that this still happens.

However, technology could enable town meetings for larger populations.  Data and plans would be presented, people would electronically ask questions, and a moderator would sort, categorize, and pose questions to speakers.  In some cases, the author of a question would be given the floor (or screen) to elaborate their questions or comment on the responses of the speakers.  Electronic meetings could be held for neighborhoods, wards, and cities as a whole.  Everyone would much better understand each other’s perspectives.

Choosing a party affiliation could be based on the philosophies and policies advocated by the different parties.  Tribalism would hopefully fade as more people came to understand the facts and the policy alternatives.  People would also gain understanding and the means to influence policies.  There would be increased engagement and talking at pubs, social groups, and online meetings.  The result would be an ongoing creative balance between conservative and liberal perspectives and priorities.

If this worked as I have outlined, I would quite likely split my votes among candidates from both parties because I would know what each candidate stands for and, from the online meetings and my iPhone data device, have a sense of whether I should believe them.  If this worked really well, I might even rediscover how to be a Republican.

Brick by Brick and Other Innovations

I recently read Robertson and Breen’s Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry (Crown Business, 2013).  As my children, grandchildren, and I have been long-time Lego fans, this book was fascinating.  It led me to think about innovation more broadly.

But first, let’s consider the Lego story.  Lego means “play well” in Danish.  Three generations of founders (Ole Kirk Kristiansen, Godtfred Kirk Kristiansen, and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen) committed to the Lego Play System, all centered on very well-designed interlocking bricks.

Two decades of strong growth hit headwinds in the late 1990s, with electronic and online offerings capturing the attention of children and their parents.  The partnership with the Star Wars brand, despite the skepticism of some Lego executives, provided a burst of growth.  However, they realized that they needed to broaden their view of innovation.  They adopted the “seven truths of innovation” that were pervasive in management circles at that time.

  • Hire diverse and creative people
  • Head for blue ocean markets
  • Be customer driven
  • Practice disruptive innovation
  • Foster open innovation – heed the wisdom of the crowd
  • Explore the full spectrum of innovation
  • Build an innovation culture

Senior executives hired to pursue these truths restored Lego’s growth, but they were not yet out of the woods.  They created a large number of new products, but poorly managed their development and roll-out.  For example, their financial management system was unable to tell them which product lines were profitable. In addition, no one among top management really understood the technologies on which they were betting.

They had pursued the seven truths, but executed poorly and wasted substantial time and money.  With a new top management team, they revisited the seven truths.  Beyond getting the basic management systems up to snuff, they focused on reconnecting with their core audiences – seven-year-old boys and several hundred thousand adult enthusiasts.  These audiences were quite frank about what they liked and disdained.

Lego brought new discipline to renewing product lines for Lego City and Duplo, as well as new products such as Bionicle, Mindstorms, and Architecture, with much crowdsourced energy and creativity from enthusiasts for the latter two.  They carefully learned how to balance internal and external sources of ideas.  They learned how to dovetail discipline and creativity.  This led to increased revenue and eventually profitability.

This gave them confidence to attempt a disruptive innovation – Lego Universe – a massive multi-player online game.  They teamed with NetDevil, a Colorado-based game developer.  It was a rocky relationship with Lego wanting everything perfect before launch, which was not the modus operandi of the online game industry. Overpriced when they came to market, Universe was shut down in a bit over a year.  Minecraft, a competing startup that was crudely similar to Lego, took over with a much lower price point.

They bounced back with Lego Games – board games that players build from bricks and then play – and Ninjago, an exciting world of ninjas battling against evil.  Lego succeeded in its pursuit of the seven truths.  In the process, they learned that, “The most difficult challenge in business is not to invent an innovative product; it’s to build an organization that continually creates innovative products.”

This fascinating book caused me to revisit my list of many great individual innovators, some of whom are profiled by Isaacson (2015).  Here are ten notable innovators:

  1. Telephone (Grosvenor & Wesson, 1997) — Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
  2. Electricity (Jonnes, 2003) — Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
  3. Automobiles (Watts, 2011) — Henry Ford (1863-1947)
  4. Flight (McCullough, 2015) – Wright Brothers (1867-1912; 1871-1948)
  5. Computing (Maney, 2003) – Thomas J. Watson, Sr. (1874-1956)
  6. Relativity (Miller, 2008; Poincaré, 1902) — Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
  7. Cubism (Miller, 2008; Poincaré, 1902) — Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
  8. Satellites (Butrica, 2014) — Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008)
  9. Internet (Ryan, 2010) – Robert Kahn (1938 – ) and Vinton Cerf (1943 – )
  10.  Digital Devices (Isaacson, 2011) — Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Most of these people are well known and need no explanation here.  It surprised me that the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke originated the design of communications satellites in a piece published in Wireless World in 1945.  Art and technology often coexist quite creatively.

The sixth and seventh entries in the above list illustrates another fascinating example of crossing borders between technology and art.  This border crossing was motivated by Henri Poincaré’s famous book on geometry (Poincaré, 1902).  Reading and discussing this book led to Einstein’s relativity theory and Picassos’ cubism (Miller, 2008).  Science and art drew on the same intellectual roots to invent new conceptualizations of space and time.

Beyond the Lego Group, there have also been innovative organizations such as Bell Labs – The Idea Factory (Gertner, 2012).  There have also been innovation ecosystems.  James Burke’s Connections (1978) provides numerous examples.  He identifies two principles:

  • The greatest impact of a technology is rarely what the originators envisioned
  • The greatest returns on investments in technology rarely accrue to original investors

In The Innovators (2015) Isaacson profiles hackers from Ida Lovelace to Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.  The path to innovation is seldom smooth.  However, as Joel Mokyr elaborates in Lever of Riches (1990), innovation is central to economic growth and prosperity.

What do the innovators in the above list appear to have in common?  They can be characterized as creative visionaries, who perhaps saw connections and distinctions not apparent to most people.  They were persistent, despite setbacks.  They learned from these setbacks.  A CEO of a very successful high-tech company in Atlanta told me, “It took several years for our customers to convince us of what they really wanted.”  Lego had that experience as well.

References

Burke, J. (1978). Connections. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

Butrica, A.J. (Ed.).(2014). Beyond the Ionosphere: Fifty Years of Satellite Communications. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics & Space Administration, NASA History Series.

Gertner, J. (2013). The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. New York: Penguin.

Grosvenor, E.S., & Wesson, M. (1997). Alexander Graham Bell. New York: Harry Abrams.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Isaacson, W. (2015). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jonnes, J. (2003). Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House

Maney, K. (2003). The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM. New York: Wiley.

McCullough, D. (2015) The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Miller, A.J.  (2008). Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. New York: Basic Books.

Mokyr, J. (1990). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Poincaré, H. (1905). Science and Hypothesis. London: Walter Scott Publishing. Originally published in French in 1902 and German in 1904.

Robertson, D.C., & Breen, B. (2013). Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry. New York: Crown Business.

Ryan, J. (2010). A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Watts, S. (2011). The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: Vintage.

The Invention of History

I have just finished reading Robin L. Fox’s The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates (Basic Books, 2020).  I found it interesting that numerous medical treatises were attributed to Hippocrates many centuries after his death.  It seems that the content of these treatises was more credible if attributed to Hippocrates.  I have read of similar claims about the Bible and other historical texts.  Later writers invented history to support their assertions.

This is more complicated than just these two instances.  Many years ago, I was reading to one of my children, Rebecca or Will.  After finishing, they thanked me for the interesting story.  I responded, “That wasn’t a story.  I was history.  It really happened.”  Their precocious response was, “How do you know that it really happened?”  I told them that I believed the story was true but I did not really know.

How much of our knowledge is believed rather than known to be true?  Certainly, our experienced knowledge – it is cold and rainy today – has a strong empirical basis.  What we have personally experienced in the past has a strong empirical basis, although memory of past events is not 100% reliable.  However, much of what we were told by parents and teachers, or read in books, is more believed than known.

“History is written by victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill, but its real origins are unknown. It indicates that history is not grounded in facts, but the winners’ interpretation, which prevails. The victors impose their narrative on historical records.  An unusual counter example is the Goths sacking Rome but having no written language to chronicle their exploits – so, the Romans wrote the story.

We typically assume that our educational system will instruct us in evidence-based history.  This can be a tenuous assumption.  The southern states in the US have long taught a narrative about the Great War of Northern Aggression that differs substantially from the history of the Civil War taught in the north.  German lessons on the Treaty of Versailles similarly differed from Allied accounts.  Reports on the recent elections pose challenges as well.

So, what do we reasonably know?  Did the Holocaust actually happen?  Did we really land on the Moon?  Who was actually responsible for 9/11?  Do the police really mistreat blacks?  Does smoking cause lung cancer?  Do poor diets contribute to obesity?  Did Jewish space lasers cause the California wild fires?  The First Amendment of the US Constitution allows people to claim absolutely anything.

I feel that I need a safe place from all the misinformation.  I completely ignore Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.  Their purpose in not evidence-based informing of the discussion and debate.  I discount CNN, CNBC and Fox News.  I pay attention to The Economist, New York Times, Washington Post, IEEE Spectrum, and Technology Review, as well as publications of the National Academies.  If these outlets agree, I am comfortably ready to believe, at least until next week’s reports.  That’s how evidence-based thinking works.

Of course, not everybody — actually relatively few people — pay attention to this collection of periodicals and publications.  They pay attention to Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps Fox News.  Their reality has no basis in – well, reality.  That doesn’t matter.  What they believe is how they vote, protest, and insurrect.  They embrace invented history and will defend it to their deaths, or perhaps ours.

What do we really know?  In Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2011) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, we learn of the many times the medical community was absolutely sure of the best treatment, e.g., radical mastectomies, to later learn they were completely wrong.  This unfortunate outcome is completely different from arguing that Jewish space lasers caused the recent California wild fires.  The former was well informed but wrong; the latter was ill informed and staged to gain political attention.

We need to educate the American public to differentiate sound scientific evidence, which may be displaced by better evidence, from political theatre where, due to First Amendment rights, people can claim absolutely anything that gives them political attention.  An important transformation of our society would be strong inclinations to label people as political clowns.  If these people reaped broadly-based disdain and contempt, we might see a transformation of political discourse.  Unfortunately, social media make their antics all too easy.

 

The Old and New Normal

The old normal involved lots of bus, metro, and uber rides to meetings with sponsors, colleagues, and friends in pursuit of new opportunities, progress on existing opportunities, and just plain socializing.  Transit time was at least an hour per day and sometimes two, sitting in a bus, train, or car catching up on your email and often connecting by phone.  It seemed completely natural, perhaps even convenient.

In March 2020, almost a year ago, everything changed.  No more travel.  Skype, Teams, and Zoom became the neighborhood.  It was ok with people you knew, a bit more awkward with people you were just meeting.  Shared white boards seemed to help.  The loss of beers and margheritas at the end of the day was unfortunate.  That was when you learned whose kids played soccer, what sports teams were winning or losing, who liked gardening?  All gone.

The vaccines give us hope, but what will be the new normal?  How long will we persist with masks?  I can imagine being cautious for quite some time.  Not only masks, but social distancing and washing our hands.  We might pay more attention to healthy behaviors, as well as to less healthy behaviors, perhaps even less healthy eating behaviors.  More fruits and vegetables, and less chips and fries might prevail.

This begs the question of whether hunkering down during the pandemic was just a holding action or an opportunity to learn new practices.  I have certainly renewed my relationship with my wok and enjoyed experimenting with new oils and spices.  I like the results, although eating the same meal two days in a row is more acceptable than three days in a row.

Music is a good companion when cooking, but cannot compensate for compatriots at a pub, absorbing and debating the latest political, economic, and sporting news.  It is interesting to argue, albeit delicately, with people who disagree with your perspective, who have a very different life experience.  It is not only interesting; it also informs your world view.  Those people with whom you completely disagree are also fans of your sports teams!

I think pubs are perfect laboratories.  We host a pint, or equivalent, and cheer on something.  During the ads for beer or pickup trucks, we reflect on other stuff.  We relearn Rufus Mile’s maxum, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”  Only a few people embrace ridiculous positions.  Most people have very good reasons for their positions on economics and politics, often based on experiences we have never had.

This down to earth meet at the pub experience has become very complicated by social media.  Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have created online worlds where everyone in this virtual pub completely agrees with you.  There are no divergent opinions to reflect on and digest.  All of your assertions are immediately embraced.  You soon realize that you are absolutely correct about everything.

So, what’s the new normal?  I sincerely hope we go back to meeting at the pub.  The inherent self-reinforcement of social media will only lead to pockets of completely self-convinced agreement on delusional perceptions and consensus.  Democracy requires conflicting perspectives and priorities.  This will not happen on social media.  It can easily happen at your neighborhood pub.  Let’s make that normal again.

Mentoring

I often encounter people seeking mentoring.  What are they usually seeking?  My sense is that they are facing one or more dilemmas.  They are seeking help to make sense of and address these dilemmas.

One dilemma is that they are facing an important decision about what to do next in their careers.  They can see soon completing their PhDs and don’t see the right future for them.  They do not want to replicate their PhD advisor, in part because of limited realistic opportunities in the current chaos of higher education.

Another dilemma concerns those who do not want to pursue academia, but do not understand opportunities available in industry and government.  They have no role models for such endeavors and do not see where they might lead.  This is, of course, due to them not having relationships with any faculty members who have done this.

A third dilemma involves people needing, voluntarily or otherwise, to consider alternative futures.  These are typically talented people who stayed in positions that no longer met their needs, but they had been unwilling to seriously consider alternative career paths.  In other words, they had been stuck.

Their first question typically is, “What opportunities do you think I should pursue?”  I avoid this question.  Instead, I pose another question, “What would you find sufficiently interesting and rewarding that you would look forward to spending every working day doing it?”

This might lead to responses such as NFL quarterback, MET opera star, or famous writer, but it seldom does.  Instead, people respond with answers such as:

  • “Figuring out solutions to tough technical problems.”
  • “Helping people deal with their health problems.”
  • “Teaching students about science and ecology.”
  • “Finding ways to help people be more energy efficient.”

Admittedly, the people I encounter are not necessarily representative of the whole population.

Given their response, we then discuss how these needs are currently addressed in terms of organizations, offerings, and current success.  The overarching question is, “Are there realistic opportunities to do this by joining one of the current players?”  If the answer is positive, “Is the compensation associated with these opportunities sufficient?”

Often, this is an important hurdle.  If so, I then ask, “Can you imagine a value proposition where society would be willing to better compensate you?”  People are usually fairly creative at this point.  As they propose approaches, we continually ask, “Why isn’t somebody already doing this?”

A common answer is, “XYZ company could do this but they aren’t.”  I suggest that they have two choices – join XYZ or compete with them.  The next stage of mentoring involves helping them to engage with XYZ.  We tell them that we, as an academic think tank, have been studying them and wondered why they have not expanded their value proposition to include the idea we have developed.

This is usually an important learning experience.  We may learn that our idea does not make sense.  More often, we learn why their corporate culture and infrastructure could not embrace this idea.  We propose to help them adopt this idea.  Sometimes they accept this help, but often we do not gain traction.  Then, we may proceed on our own, but often this does not make sense.

Either way it is a tremendous learning experience for those being mentored.  They now have an initial understanding of what it takes to innovate in an arena of particular interest to them.  They also gain experience in developing a line of reasoning for how to explore alternative futures driven by their interests, not just what jobs seem to be available.

It seems to me that we should provide students with more than just knowledge and skills, and we should provide employees with more than just jobs, tasks, and pay.  Human capital should be developed so people become increasingly more valuable to organizational performance, market innovations, and economic growth, both narrowly within their organizations and broadly across society.

The scorecards for all supervisors, managers, and executives should include mentoring.  The question is not how much they have improved their own resumes, but how much they have improved everybody else’s resumes.  Success is not just a matter of having the best athletes; it requires having the best team.

An Agenda for Change

What needs to change to transform our society in the ways needed to achieve new levels of equality, performance, and value creation?  I have nine suggestions in two broad areas.  In general, we need to move from status quo practices to best practices as shown in the table below.

 

Function

Best Practices

Status Quo Practices

Operations

Decision Making Evidence-Based Precedence or Doctrine Based
Decision Influences Transparent Opaque
Process Flow Coordinated Disjointed
Information Flow Seamless Fragmented

Strategy

Responsibility Value-Based Task-Based
Economics Ecosystem Based Cost Center Based
People Source of Value Source of Costs
Innovation Central to Growth Increases Uncertainty
Philosophy Human-Centered Money-Centered

 

Let’s first consider operations practices. We need to move away from precedence-based decision making – “We’ve always done it that way’” and doctrine-based decision making – “We have to conform with ideological values.”  A stakeholder that asserts something to be true better have his or her data at hand.  Otherwise, other stakeholders will laugh them off the stage.

It should be very clear whose and what resources are being used to influence decisions.  Hidden influences should be exposed and subject, at least, to the court of public opinion.  The objectives of those trying to “buy” outcomes should be open for all to see. These activities should be documented in Q1 and K1 filings with the SEC.  If these influences do not want public exposure, they should not be in the game.

Digital transformation is central to the changes needed.  This will also require organizational transformation to assure that everyone is running on the same gauge tracks.  Goods and services, as well as associated information, need to move in seamless and coordinated flows of value to all stakeholders.

The success of these changes of operations practices will substantially depend on changes of strategy practices.  Responsibility needs to be driven by value delivery rather than task completion.  Economic models and assessments need to address ecosystem-wide cash flows rather than simply account for gains and losses within each cost center.

Understanding and supporting the roles of people need to become central.  We have long characterized labor as costs of production and tried to minimize costs via work practices, automation, and other technologies.  An alternative view is that people enable value creation, especially when they are educated, trained, and supported to contribute to value.  People, at all levels, can invent, innovate, and drive economic growth.

I am advocating an overall philosophical change.  Our energies, investments and endeavors need to be human-centered rather than money-centered.  The goal is a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.  Rather than maximizing the Dow Jones, Nasdaq, and S&P indices, we need to maximize human potential and the outcomes of human potential.  As a result, these three financial indices will also be maximized.

Frustrations With Change

There are several forces currently driving change in our society:

  • Pandemic impacts that have completely upset the status quo
  • Economic impacts of the pandemic that have left many in dire straights
  • Disproportionate effects of economic, educational and social inequities

These forces have led to an overwhelmed healthcare system, enormous unemployment, and intense frustration on the parts of those affected by one or more of these forces.  Substantial protests and, more recently, well-planned and orchestrated insurrections have been the result.  Many people are both frustrated and extremely angry.

In parallel, social and demographic forces are steadily changing the US population.  Minorities – blacks, Hispanics, and Asians – are an increasing proportion of the population.  Education has increasingly become the means to highly-compensated employment.  The urban educated population is gaining an increasing share of the economic pie.

Interestingly, immigrants are aggressively and successfully playing this game.  While the first generation of immigrants may be a net burden on public resources, the second generation of immigrants are net contributors, and the third generation contributes far beyond native populations.  Immigration is a net good deal for the US, creating many jobs and substantial economic impacts.

However, the frustration and anger remain.  Being unable to attain appropriate education and well-compensated employment, not to mention the rights to vote, yield an enormous sense of discrimination.  Losing your chance of being the fifth-generation family member to earn your living at the local auto plant feels like a birthright denied.  However, business as usual is being fortunately and unfortunately disrupted.

The overarching issue is not getting back to normal; it is getting to what normal should have been.  As indicated in my last post, the priority has to be fostering a healthy, educated, and productive population for everyone.  No one is left behind because the societal ethos is that everyone succeeds.  Everyone’s success preempts frustration, anger and protest.  We are too busy succeeding!

A Wicked Problem

Wicked problems defy formulation and resolution.  They involve conflicting values, concerns, and perceptions that lead to conflicts, strong positions, and perhaps even hatred of the “others” who have opposing views.

We are faced with roughly 50% of the country being in fundamental conflict with the other 50% of the country.  Actually, Biden-Harris won 51.3% of the vote while Trump-Pence won 48.7%, but that’s pretty close to 50-50.

The Biden-Harris constituency includes a majority of women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.  Trump-Pence won white men in general and non-college educated white men in particular.  The majority of white voters chose Trump-Pence in 2016 and 2020.

White voters want the country to remain a white majority country, but the demographics of native births and immigration are steadily moving in the other direction.  Another force is the increasingly educated urban – and suburban – population that supported Biden.

It is tempting to label the Trump portion of the population white supremacists.  This is reasonable in part, but not in general.  Many people are simply disaffected with where the country seems to be headed.  They feel left behind and losing out.

They are right!  Traditional blue-collar jobs will increasingly be automated, ranging from agriculture to mining to truck driving.  Yet, the many projections I have reviewed include a greater number of new jobs than lost jobs.  Who will fill these jobs?

People with the right technical skills will secure these opportunities.  We need to invest in the capacities to educate and train people for these jobs.  Here are some stepping stones.  First, the high school graduation rate in the US should be 100%.  This may require reconceptualizing high school for some, but that is sorely needed.

Second, the percent of students receiving advanced education and training after high school should be 100%.  Elsewhere, I have argued that this will require tripling the capacities of community colleges, and tailoring curricula to opportunities.  We need the skilled technical workforce to include everyone.

Third, people should expect and experience rewarding and well-compensated employment that leverages their hard-earned expertise to create and service leading-edge products and services.  Everyone needs to feel that they are creating value for themselves, their families, and society.

Fourth, and likely quite controversial, people need to elevate their aspirations.  When I read Amy Goldstein’s compelling book Janesville: An American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2017), I was struck by vignettes reporting four generations working at the GM plant, all hating their jobs, but enjoying the good pay that enabled buying off-road vehicles and speed boats for nearby lakes.  Is that the best deal available?

We need a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.  We need this population to be inventive and enable innovations that change he marketplace.  Past generations gave us electricity, indoor plumbing, and television.  Recent generations provided cell phones, the Internet, and social media.  We need the current generation to do their part.

So, why is our current problem wicked?  It is if we are trapped by our fundamental disconnects – white versus multi-racial; rural versus urban; poorly versus highly educated.  However, these distinctions may be diminished if we focus on what everybody wants.  I would expect that we could agree on wanting a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.  Everyone benefits from this and, together, we can make this happen.

Knowing and Being

This book provides a great tour of philosophy, primarily German, in the early decades of the 20th century.

Eilenberger, W. (2018). Time of the Magicians. Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger and the Decade that Reinvented Philosophy. New York: Penguin.

Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1905), and Freud’s Psychoanalysis (1917) had upset Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that saw human life as immutable rather than subject to the evolution of life forms, space-time variations, and underlying psychological predilections.

The questions of interests to these four men included:

  • What does it mean to exist?
  • What can be known; what is knowable?
  • What can be influenced, affected?

They encountered much angst in pursuing answers, as well as challenges gaining and retaining positions that paid enough to sustain themselves and families.

Eilenberger covers the period 1919 to 1929.  The four main characters are:

  • Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945): Neo-Kantian pursuing an idealistic philosophy of science.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): Worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language
  • Martin Heidegger (1989-1976): Best known for contributions to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism.
  • Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): Contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism.

Contemporaries, although a bit older (except for Arendt), include:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): Philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist who exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual history.
  • Gottlob Frege (1848-1925): Father of analytic philosophy, concentrating on the philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics.
  • Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): Polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.
  • G.E Moore (1983-1958): One of the founders of analytic philosophy with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege.
  • John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): Economist who fundamentally changed theory and practice of macroeconomics and economic policies of governments
  • Hannah Arendt (1906-1975): Political theorist with lasting influence on political theory and philosophy; a most important political thinkers of the 20th century

Historical figures who hugely influenced contemporary thought at that time were:

  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716): Prominent polymath and one of the most important logicians, mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Enlightenment
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made Kant one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): Works include: four novels; epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; and treatises on botany, anatomy, and color.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): Philosopher and the most important figure in German idealism

The struggles of these four men with the questions noted earlier were interesting, but I found it difficult to relate to their angst.  Rather than addressing such universal and perhaps absolute questions, I am more attuned to understanding my experiences and perceptions.  Finally, on page 246 of 365, I encountered this paragraph, with which I highly resonated.

“For the Renaissance, the foundation of all this opening of the self and the world is the ability to give symbolic expression to our own experience. It is this that enables our entirely individual vision of the world to take shape in the form of a work, even if it is only the matter of playing the flute, making a gesture, a drawing, or a calculation.  Having become a sign, and having been placed in the public sphere, a “work” can then be a starting point for others, for successors to open up themselves and the world; this is culture as a continuous process of symbolically guided orientation, or indeed an opening up, even in the form of a whistle, a movement, or a sketch, or a calculation.”

Reading this book caused me to delve into the history of contemporary western philosophy from the 17th century until now.  The number of schools of thought and leaders of these schools is rather amazing.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I find myself sympathetic to the school founded by William James (1842-1910) and Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) at Harvard, and later John Dewey (1859-1952) at Chicago, in the late 19th century.

“Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”  This sounds a lot like science and engineering to me, which is probably to be expected from a pragmatic American.  Thus, the earlier three questions should be logically and empirically addressed.  If the answers have practical value, then one can accept their truth at least tentatively until better answers are formulated and evaluated.

This book was, obviously, very thought provoking.  It caused me to revisit topics I have not addressed since being an undergraduate more than 50 years ago.  I paid attention to these topics then because they were course requirements.  This time, I was simply fascinated and wanted to know.  Of course, I have only touched the surface of this broad topic, totally biased to Western rather than Eastern thought and not exploring indigenous cultures.  An interesting question is whether philosophizers in all cultures pose the same fundamental questions.

Understanding and Managing Complexity

If you think the complexity of the current situation – pandemic, global warming, and race relations – is overwhelming, I have a suggestion for coping with the complexity.  The just published issue of The Bridge (https://www.nae.edu/Bridge.aspx) provides a wonderfully broad and intriguing set of perspectives of how complexity is manifested throughout our society.  We cannot eliminate complexity, but we can understand it and develop useful mechanisms for coping with, and perhaps even leveraging, complexity.

This issue reports the “seven habits of highly effective systems thinkers.”

1. Specialize less, systematize more. Working across divisions and abstractions can inform and guide better concepts, principles, models, methods, and tools. On matters of complexity, engineers need to confront the true value of various specializations, how far they can take us, and how they are rewarded.

2. Get over physics envy, try ecology envy. Less Newton, more Darwin. Engineering achievements and ruins both hinge on reductionism fueled largely by physics. It’s time to refocus on deep lessons from nature and culture and all their evolutions.

3. Evolve logic and psychologic. Engineering training and algorithms encourage context blindness. Being sensitive to environments will require exercising intellectual senses as well as prudent forms of engineering.

4. Foster discipline over disciplines. Complex systems can change faster than the mind can conceive them, and “solutions” can trigger undesirable outcomes. Staying attentive to failure modes requires discipline.

5. Relate first, rationalize next. Complexity builds from relationships. Relating to one another is a civic act and engineering should be too. Rationality works only part time—and it’s often hard to tell which part.

6. Progress comes from participation. Engineers often feel conflicted about being “hired guns” or “order takers.” Active reflection becomes a challenge. Broadening participation across populations may alleviate this discomfort. If there are no sacrifices, one might say, there’s no engineering. Similarly, if there’s no public participation, there’s no progress.

7. Focus more on care than creation. Capitalism is fueled by newness and novelty, or so the belief goes. But maintenance and care are sources of essential wisdom and traditions. Vital systems that support people need more care than reckless new creations.

Crossing the Information Chasm

Facebook, Twitter, and other emergent platforms have resulted in the Balkanization of the world of information.  There are large subpopulations that believe the moon landing was faked, climate change and the pandemic are hoaxes, and the presidential election was fraudulently stolen from Donald Trump. They only pay attention to information sources that support these views.  Everything else is seen as fake news.

Does this matter and, if so, what can be done to remedy the situation?   Does the prevalence of believers of disinformation have any impacts?  Certainly, persisting in the use of fossil fuels and not wearing masks affects others, as well as themselves.  A Darwinian perspective would suggest that they will suffer the consequences of their behaviors and, over time, this subpopulation will steadily decrease in size.

This assumes, however, that they just passively accept these consequences.  Another possibility is that they aggressively conflict with other subpopulations that do not support their views.  They might organize, and possibly weaponize, to counter their “deep state” adversaries.  The result would likely be armed conflicts that were associated with originally coining the term Balkanization.

Another possibility is a broad, national initiative to open a dialog premised on the assumption that each subpopulation has compelling and valid reasons for holding their mutually conflicting beliefs.  From this perspective, everyone is right in the context of his or her lived experiences.  The next step, then, involves understanding and appreciating these experiences.

How have rural, black, LGBT, and other groups experienced life in terms of economic rewards, social acceptance, and interactions with government agencies?  How have these experiences influenced perceptions?  How have others attempted to affect these perceptions?  How might society invest to improve people’s personal situations?

This may all sound unrealistic.  However, we cannot continue to accept rampant polarization.  We need to proactively and humanely address the sources of these huge disconnects and invest in finding common ground.  Perpetual conflict will not result in the growth and satisfaction that we all seek.  We need to thoughtfully look out for each other.

Changing of the Palace Guard

It is interesting to live in Washington, DC and observe how sponsors and colleagues are reacting to the changing of the palace guard.  Most of these people are at least one level below the political appointees of the palace guard and will not be leaving.  They seem relieved, not existentially but practically.  Their new superiors may be in place for the next four years.

It appears that the next set of players will be experienced and competent.  That is a welcome relief.  I was privy to a high-level discussion of the White House’s stated criteria for political appointments over the past four years.  It is essential, I was told, that candidates have no expertise relevant to the agency they would lead and be destroyers rather than builders.

Flurries of executive orders dismantled policies and regulations intended to protect health, education, and environment.  This was motivated, in part, by enormous donations from fossil fuel companies to political campaigns and disinformation efforts to confuse and mislead the public.  The swamp that was to have been drained was actually carefully nurtured.

Government is intended to serve and protect the interests of all citizens.  Individuals, companies and other organizational entities attempt to maximize their personal gains from government coffers, but this is a consequence of our public-private ecosystems, not the primary purpose of these ecosystems.  Much greater transparency could help to moderate these very natural tendencies.

What can we expect?  The pandemic and its health and economic consequences will remain to be addressed.  The looming threat of global warming and its impacts will need considerable attention and investments.  Social and economic equity will require considerable work.  The difference will be that these challenges are not going to be denied.  We will openly recognize them and address them with expertise, resources, and commitment.

With the vaccine on the way, we will hopefully move back towards economic normalcy.  New leadership will also provide confidence in a “back to normal” government that will professionally address and manage the substantial challenges we face.  Further, we will again see consistent and truthful communications about what is happening and how the government is responding.

 

Problem Solving in Complex Adaptive Systems

It is important to distinguish between understanding complex problems and solving them. Solving problems in complex adaptive systems can be quite difficult and often intractable. Climate change, global warming and their consequences provide a compelling example.

The science seems clear in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. The relationship between warming and fires, hurricanes, and flooding, due in part to increased ocean temperatures, seems we’ll understood.

The solutions to this problem include lowering emissions and mitigating the impacts of fires, hurricanes and flooding. On the longer term, it is a bit more complicated, e.g., rising temperatures making the southeastern US uninhabitable for humans, animals and crops some time between 2040 and 2060.

The solutions involve decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, not building in flood zones, and better management of the environment, e.g., wetlands and forests. Are we really ready and willing to do this?  It will require mobilizing the economy and society — government, industry, and the workforce — for major changes, indeed transformation of the economy and society.

Pursuit of this agenda requires understanding the nature of the complex adaptive socioeconomic system involved.  This system is populated with intelligent agents – individuals, organizations and associations – that learn about and adapt to studies, strategies, policies, incentives, and regulations to “game” the system to the advantage of their organizations and themselves.

Horst Rittel, almost five decades ago, characterized addressing such systems as wicked problems.  A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem laced with incomplete or contradictory knowledge, large numbers of people and opinions involved, substantial economic burdens, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Problems such as poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness – and climate change — plague our nation and our world.

Consider Rittel’s ten characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.  Climate change cannot be fully addressed by “just” attending to carbon emissions.
  2. It is difficult to measure or claim success with because of connections among problem where boundaries cannot be defined.  Climate change involves issues across the environment, governments, industries and populations.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not correct or incorrect. There is no idealized end state for climate so approaches involve tractable ways to improve the situation rather than solve it.
  4. There are no best practices when tackling wicked problems, although history may provide a guide. Approaching climate change is likely to require making things up along the way.
  5. There are always multiple explanations for wicked problems, with the appropriateness of explanations depending greatly on the perspective stakeholders.  Climate change is a threat to several industries and workforces.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of other problems. The interconnected nature of socioeconomic systems illustrates how education interacts with health, employment and lifestyles.
  7. Solution strategies for wicked problems have no definitive validity tests because humans created wicked problems and natural science approaches are inadequate for addressing whether climate change is fixed.
  8. Solutions to wicked problems frequently involve a single chance of success because significant interventions change the problem space enough to limit the ability for trial and error optimization of solutions.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.  One will never encounter the same problem twice in the complex adaptive system of climate change, as key stakeholders will have reacted to earlier interventions, often precipitating new problems.

10. Policy decision makers attempting to address wicked problems must be empowered to act fully responsible for their actions.  Climate policies that significantly affect large populations and industries should be well informed, well communicated, and amenable to learning and improvement.

Based on these characteristics, problems have indeterminate scope and scale. Social problems such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine tend to be wicked. A key role for problem solvers involves mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise and demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.

Let’s apply this thinking to addressing climate change.  This ecosystem can be characterized as a multi-level enterprise where the levels for this domain are people, processes, organizations, and government.  The perspectives and proclivities of stakeholders at each level include:

  • Government:  Elected officials have great difficulty trading off short-term versus long-term costs and benefits, due to a large extent to the concerns, values and perceptions of their constituents – citizens and companies.
  • Organizations: The vested interests in energy extraction, refinement, and use are enormous and are naturally inclined to sustain status quo business models, and the benefits these models provide to these organizations.
  • Processes: Processes for extracting, refining, and utilizing fossil fuels are well developed, employ millions of people, and represent trillions of dollars of stock market capitalization.
  • People: People have long exploited natural resources and come to depend on the benefits of these resources in terms of both consumption and employment.  Changing consumption habits is very difficult.

So, addressing climate change is clearly a wicked problem.  What might we aspire to accomplish in transforming this system? Here are three priorities:

  • Regulations to reduce emissions of carbon and methane
  • Regulations to eliminate coal-fired power plants
  • Regulations to eliminate building or rebuilding in flood planes

As noted above, key stakeholders are likely to invest substantially to thwart such regulations, with lobbyists generously facilitating campaign contributions to Members of Congress willing to join the anti-regulation chorus.

Significant investments in communications and education will be needed to gain public support.  Substantial incentives will also be needed to compensate those most affected by these regulations.  Examples include:

  • Investment tax credits for extraction companies, as well as broader industry, investing in climate-friendly offerings
  • Investment tax credits for those moving capital from extraction companies to climate-friendly technology investments
  • Incentives for transportation companies to shift investments to climate-friendly mobility offerings

These types of incentives will only indirectly benefit the workers displaced by these regulations.  Thus, investments will also be needed to accelerate the creation of new jobs, particularly skilled technical workforce jobs.  Further investments, likely in community colleges, will be to train or retrain large numbers of people for these jobs.  Elsewhere, I have estimated that community college capacities will need to be tripled.

A key issue is the time profile of introducing these regulations, incentives, and investments. Regulations could be phased in over 5 years.  Incentives and investments could begin now and continue for 10 years or more. The results would be slow changes, but anticipated changes that stakeholders could plan for over time.

What would be the costs of all these changes?  To put this question in perspective, consider the costs of mitigating the impacts of climate change.  In an earlier post, I noted that the costs of mitigating floods resulting from global warming would, within ten years or so, require annually 10% of global GDP.  If we add in the impacts of fires, droughts, and other weather related impacts, the costs of NOT changing completely dwarf the costs of the proposed changes.

The immediate next steps involve building an increasing constituency for addressing the wicked problem associated with our complex adaptive socioeconomic system.  We need, over time, for everyone to own climate change challenges and, similarly, own the solutions.

Designing as Dialogues in Contexts

Subramanian, E., Reich, Y., & Krishnan, S. (2020). We Are Not Users: Dialogues, Diversity, and Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

The authors’ central argument is that we have a much deeper relationship with the things we create than just being users. Social media provides compelling examples of how the usability of the interface, while important, trivializes the sense of how these media affect our lives.  They impact the personal, social, and political ways in which we interact with the world.  Thus, we are not only users; we are designers of the overall interactions with the artifact and other people.

This book reviews the history of designing through various lenses, ranging from nonmessy to slightly messy to more messy to most messy.  The messiness comes from the extent to which designing considers context, which includes behavioral and social phenomena, as well as environmental and cultural phenomena.  At the extremes, the contrast is between designing as algorithmic optimization versus designing as dialogues and explorations by often-heterogeneous stakeholders.

The book conceptualizes designing as a dialogue among stakeholders, the assemblage of which operates as a complex adaptive system.  Stakeholders discuss and debate, pursuing common ground, likely enabled by boundary spanning mechanisms.  The nature of these mechanisms varies with differing contexts.  In my experience they are often pictures, sketches, and diagrams that enable divergent domains to communicate.  The authors refer to this collection of mechanisms as models.

They argue for a “conceptual flat space” where all the representations of phenomena appear by themselves but with traceability to elements of the context, enabling multi-dimensional views.  We have approached this with the construct of “views.”  Views enable seeing the relationships between levels of abstraction as they apply to particular phenomena and stakeholders.

The process of boundary-spanning modeling eventually leads to a theory of the artifact.  This theory can be embodied in what we call “policy flight simulators.” One of their examples is a game – Rubbish! – that addresses solid waste management in Bangalore.  This game enables stakeholders to be immersed in the complexity of their system and learn how other stakeholders perceive the system.

The ultimate challenge is not designing for the future but designing of the future. The authors’ compelling and down to earth case studies cause me to request that they address designing for global warming. How do we span the boundaries and find common ground among all the stakeholders in the energy ecosystem. The authors have, I think, the right prescription but how do we make it happen?

Investment Strategies

How do people envision the future?  How do they consider uncertainties? How do they think about investing today to have a better tomorrow?

People seem willing to invest in their personal futures, e.g., retirement. They seem willing to invest in their children’s futures, e.g., education. The further they look into the future, the more difficult this becomes, e.g., their grandchildren’s retirement.

The more broadly they look, the more difficult it becomes. They might invest, perhaps modestly, in the futures of nieces and nephews. What about neighbors or other people in the community?  How about people in other countries?

People appear to have temporal discount rates for the future and spatial discount rates for distal people and phenomena. A child dying next door is a tragedy; 100,000 people dying from a tsunami on the other side of the world is a statistic.

We handle this as a society by taxing everyone, combining the resulting resources, and committing to longer-term and broader investments. Other social organizations, e.g., churches and other non-governmental organizations, do this as well. Many people benefit from this.

However, we are not explicitly and systematically addressing a key question. How much should we invest in assuring that the population of the US is healthy, educated, and productive so as to be competitive in the global marketplace?  This is not just “no child left behind”; it is “no one left behind.”

What would be the benefits of 100% of our population being healthy, educated, and productive? What if all disabled people could work and all elderly people could age at home?  We cannot address this here, but my projections show dramatically increased government revenues and substantially decreased government expenditures.

The logic is simple: everyone is productive, pays taxes, and needs less government support. The resulting surpluses can be used to help others — globally — to join the cohort of healthy, educated, and productive people. This is not pie in the sky; it is pie for everyone.

This makes moral sense.  It makes economic sense.  Why don’t we do it?  In part, it is short sightedness.  More fundamental, however, is the philosophy that everyone should take care of himself or herself.  Almost no one does this.  We use roads, drink water, benefit from sanitation and public health, take advantage of education and healthcare, and are defended from numerous risks.

Each of us, except perhaps for hermits in the woods, are cared for in many ways.  Yet, there is a pervasive sense among many of us that we are “self made” people.  It was our true grit that resulted in our success.  No one helped us with school, college, graduate school, and placement in plum jobs.  We accomplished all of this with no one helping us.

Why cannot everyone else do this?  The reason is primarily circumstances.  Not everyone is a member of Warren Buffett’s “lucky sperm club.”  Buffett happened to born in the right country, to the right parents, at precisely the right moment, to absurdly reward his special talent at asset allocation.  Consequently, he became one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “outliers,” with superior intelligence and motivation to work hard and, crucially, being at the right place at the right time.

So, Buffett was lucky.  Very few people are this lucky.  A larger population has a share of good luck.  A substantial population enjoys modest luck.  Such luck affects how you leave the starting blocks in the race of life.  Some people accelerate with great energies. Many struggle to stand up and then walk rather than sprint.

The key elements are health, education, resources and a social network that cheers you on throughout the race.  Many people are deficient in these elements.  We would all be better off if such deficiencies were quite rare.   We can, as a society, decide to make this happen.  Investing in the health, education, and productivity of everyone can, as noted earlier, provides a quite positive return on investment to everyone.  We just need the will to do this.

 

Progress at the Speed of Trust

Stephen Covey originated this idea in his book The Speed of Trust (Free Press, 2006).  Progress is limited by the extent to which key stakeholders trust in the endeavor of interest and support its pursuit.

There are multiple levels of trust.  At one level, we are concerned that leaders and other authorities will not mislead or lie to us.  We want them to be looking out for our interests, not just their own or vested interests.

At another level, the concern is with the extent to which the vision and plan they are articulating makes sense and is likely to succeed.  Is there any trustable evidence that the plan will work? What are the risks of failure?

Yet at another level, can we trust those involved to actually execute the plan?  Do they have the commitments and resources to implement their plan and achieve their vision?  What are the risks of execution difficulties?

Consider how these notions of trust apply to the pandemic, the economy, and climate change.  Let’s start with sources of evidence that can be trusted.  For the pandemic, I would include the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), more broadly the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  They spend billions of dollars on keeping track of what is happening and likely to happen.

For the economy, the US Federal Reserve tracks the Consumer Price Index, Gross Domestic Product, Employment, Housing Starts, Stock Indices, and numerous other metrics.  The European Central Bank (ECB) does the same thing for the European Union.  There are, of course, numerous business news outlets that report on stock prices, business earnings announcements, new product releases, and mergers and acquisitions.

Regarding climate change, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports a wide range of metrics. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and its numerous subsidiaries, track and project changes.  The US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) regularly issues reports on climate, health, and a wide range of consensus studies.

Digesting this wide range of materials can be an enormous undertaking, but publications such as The Economist, New York Times, and Washington Post, to name just a few, often highlight findings of these governmental organizations.  Much less trustworthy are Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  There is no assessment of the credibility and veracity of such postings.  Consequently, outrageous lies, proliferating rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright misinformation are rampant.

So, there is pretty good basis for achieving the first level of trust.  The second level – the vision and plan for moving forward – is more difficult as it involves moving from assessments of “what is” to projections of the consequences of “what if,” e.g., outcomes of choices of particular strategies or policies.

The governmental organizations noted above might provide well-reasoned speculations on how to move forward on health, the economy, and climate change.  However, such projections are laced with uncertainties about what will really work and how well it will work.  This is often addressed by asking, “How accurate have their past projections been?”  This is akin to relying on a baseball pitcher’s won-loss record and earned run average.

The third level of trust is also a challenge.  Will the commitment and resources be available to achieve success?  This is a political rather than technical challenge.  Health, the economy, and climate change involve many government actors who have to authorize policies and appropriate resources to implement these policies.  In recent years, in particular, these actors have been unwilling to appropriate resources to maintain physical infrastructure, for example, before it fails.  Colloquially, they just kick the can down the road.

Combining the misinformation on social media, the uncertainties associated with alternative plans forward, and demonstrated inabilities of governmental actors to commit to plans, it should not be unexpected that the public does not trust society to deal with health, the economy, and climate change.  These impedances are surmountable with concerted educated-focused communications, as long as politicians and pundits do not undermine the process.

Beyond trust, there is another consideration.  Are people willing to behave in the ways needed to support the success of plans?  The pandemic has a mixed record on this.  Many people, perhaps most, are agreeing to facemasks, social distancing, and washing hands, yet a reasonable large number of people see it an as infringement of their rights.

Much more abstract is people’s willingness to align their lifestyles with good health and well being.  The prevalence of chronic diseases associated with poor lifestyle choices decreases quality of life and life expectancy, while also greatly increasing healthcare costs.  Of course, there are many social determinants that influence the prevalence of chronic diseases.

Our economy is gong through a transformation as automation and artificial intelligence enable replacing humans in many routine jobs.  At the same time, emerging new jobs provide opportunities, for example, as coal mining jobs disappear, two of the fastest growing jobs are solar panel installation and wind turbine maintenance.

We need to create educational opportunities, likely via community colleges, to create the skilled technical workforce that can perform these millions of new jobs.  At the same time, people need to be open to being retrained for these new opportunities, many of which will be well paid.  This will increases those with good middle class wages enabling, for example, making tax-deferred contributions to retirement savings accounts.

Addressing global warming, as well as mitigating the impacts of global warming, will require decarbonizing our economy.  We will need to move from fossil fuels to clean energy, such as solar, wind, and possibly nuclear.  We will need to increase use of public transit, which is much more energy efficient than individual transportation.  We will need to reduce waste, particularly packaging and plastic.

These will require major changes. People have long exploited natural resources and come to depend on the benefits of these resources in terms of both consumption and employment.  Consequently, changing consumption habits will be very difficult.

Beyond individual consumers, processes for extracting, refining, and utilizing fossil fuels are well developed, employ millions of people, and represent trillions of dollars of stock market capitalization.  Further, the vested interests in energy extraction, refinement, and use are enormous and are naturally inclined to sustain status quo business models, and the benefits these models provide to these organizations.

Finally, consider government.  Elected officials have great difficulty trading off short-term versus long-term costs and benefits, due to a large extent to the concerns, values and perceptions of their constituents – citizens and companies.  Thus, many people do not trust government to do the right things.  Evidence is ignored, commitments are continually delayed, and problems grow.

We need a restart focused on the three levels of truth outlined earlier.  Business as usual – muddling through and kicking the can down the road — will no longer be an acceptable, albeit mediocre, practice. It is much too late.  We need to rebuild a society-wide foundation of trust that will enable a consensus on visions, plans, resources, and execution.

Hope in Troubling Times

How can we deal with all the negative things swirling around us?  A natural tendency is to hunker down and avoid the bad vibrations. Just wait out the negative things until positive things are possible.

Of course, if everyone does this, anything positive could be a long time coming.  Michael Curry has a proposal. Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and preaches fairly often at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

I have met Bishop Curry a couple of times during services at the Cathedral. Once he provided me a personal blessing. This experience and his compelling sermons have made me a fan of Michael Curry. No one else can pause during a thoughtful sermon to a thousand or more Episcopalians and say, “I could use an Amen right now,” and enthusiastically receive it.

Bishop Curry’s new book is Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times (Avery, 2020).  He focuses on agape love — brotherly love, affection, caring, good will, and benevolence — and how it can change the world.  His argument is compelling, just like his sermons.

But this book is not a philosophical treatise. It is the story of Michael Curry’s life as a preacher, mentor, and a black man making a difference in the world. It is laced with very moving stories.  Many are about his experiences, often involving little known people who epitomize his approach to life.

Curry’s book will cause you to explore your own values and beliefs, including the role played by faith.  This includes defining the authentic you.  His compelling story will not only appeal to Episcopals and Christians, but also to those affiliated with Judaism and Islam, as well as Native Americans.  Bishop Curry’s message is universal.

After reading Michael Curry’s fascinating book, I moved on to Good Company by Arthur M. Blank (William Morrow, 2020), cofounder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) and Atlanta United (MLS). I was not expecting a confluence of themes and messages.

What do an Episcopal Bishop and a Jewish billionaire have in common?  They have very similar philosophies about people, caring, giving and contributing to society. Their respective books provide persuasive bookends to their compelling philosophies.

Having lived in Atlanta for three decades, this alignment of philosophical agendas probably should not have surprised me. Blank is Jewish and the Atlanta Jewish community has strong ties with the Atlanta Black community. Blank’s book relates captivating stories of black leaders of the Civil Rights movement, as well as his caring responses to recent NFL players’ protests.

More down to earth is the pricing practices at Blank’s Home Depot, as well as their workforce practices.  They intently listened to customers and employees, wanting to learn about their desires and complaints. Post Home Depot, his decisions regarding seat width in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as well as food and drink prices at the stadium portray an intense focus on other people’s needs and desires.

Similar to Bishop Curry, one of Blank’s core values is giving back.  He discusses his efforts, in partnership with other organizations, to resurrect the Westside of Atlanta. His message is that you can only move at the “speed of trust.”  Blank had engaged employees, termed associates in all his businesses, in choosing recipients for his many philanthropic endeavors. He wants them to frame and recommend grants, as well as enjoy the satisfaction of giving.

My recent blog posts have been less than optimistic. These two books have renewed me. We are capable of doing what is right and doing it well. Thank you Michael and Arthur. The title of this post is the subtitle of Michael Curry’s book. I’ll end with the heading of the last section of Arthur Blank’s book  “There is enough (economic) pie for everyone.”

Transforming Anger

It is so very easy to get angry about the current situation in the US.  Pandemic, recession, hurricanes, flooding, fires, earthquakes, protests about racial injustice, attempts to pack the Supreme Court and undermine elections are all woven together over the past six months.  It is almost a perfect storm of calamities.

My anger is not about natural events, although we could have been paying much closer attention to these possibilities significantly earlier.  We have handled these problems so poorly, relying more on bravado than expertise.  You cannot talk your way out of natural events.  Nature does not negotiate.

Anger does not do me any good. To defuse it, I have substantially scaled back my consumption of news.  There are too many pundits with too many opinions.  Further, nothing surprises me because I have, in effect, been trained to expect the worst.  Dastardly deeds flourish.  Anything is apparently acceptable.

Consequently, I have decided to stem my anger and just be frustrated.  I can creatively deal with frustration.  One outlet is the Washington DC Panda Cam where you can watch the progress of the now one-month old panda cub.  This 2-pound cub will become a 200 to 300 pound adult.  This is comparable to an 8-pound human baby growing to be an 800-1,200 pound adult.

Another outlet is walking outside, especially now that DC is having lovely Fall weather.  The expanse of green trees and gardens is relaxing.  Within the next month or so, Fall colors will amaze us.  The birds and the squirrels do not seem angry or frustrated.  They just do their things, oblivious to the calamities we perceive, although climate change will likely eventually affect them.

Interesting and satisfying distractions become the new avocations.  Reading history reassures me that we gotten past bad stretches before.  I leaven contemporary non-fiction, such as biographies, with occasional murder mysteries.  I have been ordering books from Amazon because visits to my favorite bookstores confront me with outpourings of the cottage industry of tell-all insider revelations.

I am hoping that the plethora of calamities will cause society to wake up and look at the challenges we are facing.  Avoiding issues and delaying addressing them are not viable approaches to a desirable future.  We need to pull together, devise some plans, invest accordingly, and act decisively.

Unfortunate Themes

Here is my recent reading/watching list:

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Anderson (Random House, 2020)
  • The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery, 2020)
  • Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown, 2019)
  • The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski (Netflix, 2020)

There are five themes woven though these publications:

  • Greed is good — Geniuses
  • Workers are abused — Groceries
  • Strangers are wrong — Talking
  • Connectivity is pervasive – Dilemma
  • Conspiracies are persistent – Dilemma

Add in the pandemic, hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes and it looks like we are going to Hell in a hand basket. Are there any positive signs?

Government workers, below the levels of political appointees, are dedicated and doing the right things — often rather quietly. Health workers and educators are doing their best to keep providing essential services. A large percentage of citizens are wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands, trying to avoid infecting others.

Nevertheless, the themes outlined earlier embody very powerful forces. The results, among many outcomes, have undermined the middle class. Working class wages have stagnated for decades, while jobs have been contracted out, steadily depressing wages. Pensions are disappearing and healthcare is rare for contract jobs. The income of the ruling class and its net worth has soared.

Is there a ruling class in the US?  We have a ruling class in the sense of the economic golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. There are 12,000 registered lobbyists working to influence Congress.  That is over 22 per Member of Congress.  Their goal is to influence the rules.

These lobbyists and associated organizations contribute billions of dollars to political campaigns, which is needed for each election.  Expenditures are dominated by media buys – see communications below.  Those who contribute all these monies get to highly influence the rules of the game.

The nature of communications in society has changed.  Gladwell’s case studies of miscommunications involve war, fraud, murder, suicide, and all sorts of unfortunate outcomes.  We assume honesty and see people as transparent, unaware of differences and circumstances we cannot know.  When we find that we are wrong, we blame them.

The social dilemma of communicating 24×7 results in disappearing attention spans. “Breaking News” pervades every moment of our lives.  We collect and tally “likes” similar to breaths.  We see all these services as free, but that is only because we and our data are the “product.”  Over time, these services know us better than we know ourselves.  This enables Amazon to send us products before we have ordered them.  We are amazed to get the product the same day.

Geniuses and Groceries show us that most people are subject to the prerogatives of the folks in charge – those with the gold.  Talking shows us how often we are simply outright wrong.  Dilemma portrays us as addicted to instant gratification and willing to be manipulated to get our next fix.  These findings do not lead me to try to rekindle my natural optimism.

A Reformed Optimist

“Everything will work out in the end and, if it doesn’t, it is not the end.” This was a theme in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) but attributed to Paul Coelho and John Lennon much earlier.

I am an inveterate optimist, but I am reconsidering my inclinations.  Look how we have handled things lately. Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses (2020) provides a compelling commentary on “recent history.” Economic inequality has increased enormously — by design. Almost all the growth in wealth has gone to the top few percent of our population. Lots of people are very frustrated.

The pandemic has exposed much of this inequality in terms of who loses jobs and who gets sick and dies. The government has avoided being honest, not wanting to affect elections. Pandemic protections have become an issue of freedom and masculinity.

The big challenge is waiting in the wings. Climate change has led to global warming, and the impacts of global warming have included intense hurricanes, broad flooding, and pervasive wildfires.  Nature – physics, chemistry, etc. — underlying all of this does not watch CNN and Fox. Nature just does what it does.

We know what to do to mitigate global warming and mitigate the impacts of global warming. We simply are unwilling do this. The key players want to win elections, lubricated by massive funds from lobbyists. The fact that they are destroying civilization is ok with them, as long as it does not happen while they are in office.

Of course, the Earth will be fine for quite some time. It has endured meteor impacts, ice ages, widespread plagues and, most significantly, the impacts of creative people aspiring for personal benefits.  Maybe this is the central idea.  The Earth will be ok without us.  Civilization will have been just a blip across the millennia. Then, we are gone, like the squirrels sallied from your attic, and everything works out in the end.

Death by Complexity

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988) presaged Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking Press, 2004).  Both books provide vivid explanations of how societies fail and why.

Societies create mechanisms to deal with new challenges.  Walls are built to thwart Mongol hoards.  Regulations are created to deter fraud and corruption.  Programs are designed to assure equity of access to education and health.  Each of these initiatives leads to a new layer of societal complexity.

Each of these layers creates a set of vested interests in the operations of the layer and the economic benefits of these operations.  Consequently, it is very difficult to eliminate layers, even if the original motivation for the layer has disappeared.

Adding layers is much easier.  The benefits of the layer, to both those targeted to receive these benefits and those compensated to provide these benefits, can be quite substantial.  That’s why they are very reluctant to forego these benefits, even if the provision of these benefits no longer makes sense.

So, societies keep adding layers that consume resources.  Eventually, a new challenge emerges – a pandemic, climate change or alien invaders – and there are no resources to invest in a new layer.  All resources are being consumed to support earlier layers of complexity.  This is a harbinger of societal failure.

Where do we currently stand?  There are layers that many people do not realize exist.  For example, the blog on Downsizing the Federal Government indicates, “The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. About 39 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive subsidies, with the lion’s share of the handouts going to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.”

Transportation subsidies are probably the largest, with public transit receiving $50 billon per year.  Airplanes, aluminum, athletic shoes, automotive, microelectronics, and oil are among the largest corporate recipients of subsidies, with the top 10 recipients receiving $30-40 billion per year.  Layers of bureaucracy administer all of these subsidies.  There is a labyrinth of vested interests, advocates, and lobbyists.

We also have layers that administer Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as layers that regulate agriculture, aviation, banking, education, energy, environment, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. These activities create economic value in the sense that the millions of employees involved translate their salaries and wages into consumption.

The complexity is staggering during “normal” times, but can become overwhelming during crises such as the mortgage meltdown (2007-2010) and the current pandemic.  The impacts of climate change are lurking around the corner, which over the coming years will consume an increasing portion of global GDP.

Might the layer of complexity added to address the impacts of climate change precipitate societal failure?  The risk of this is sufficient to warrant careful and thoughtful anticipation of this possibility and careful consideration of mechanisms to mitigate this outcome.  Our typical approach of “too little, too late” is no longer viable.  Actually, it never was but we muddled through.  Muddling is now a sure way to guarantee enormous negative societal consequences.

 

Disruptive Innovation in the Public Sector

How can innovation be cultivated in the public sector?  Consider defense, education, and healthcare.  These three primarily public sector systems are ripe for disruption and innovation. Enormous improvements of services and decreased costs are undoubtedly achievable. The key question is how to disrupt the status quo. Let’s first consider how a direct approach might work, and then discuss a different approach to influencing these systems.

Each of these systems includes deeply embedded processes that have long served vested interests.  These interests will aggressively work to thwart changes that strongly threaten heavily defended rice bowls. The fact that some constituencies are dramatically underserved and costs for those who are served are highly inflated will not deter the stewards of the status quo.

How can change be accomplished in the face of these vested interests and their strong intent to thwart change?  One has to change the value propositions for at least a few key stakeholders such that other key stakeholders are willing to compromise. Examples changes might include:

  • Defense contractors having to underwrite the risks of their investments
  • Government no longer backing loans to college students
  • Medicare no longer paying fee for service reimbursements

These changes, if actually implemented, would force key stakeholders to first fight these changes and then totally rethink their investment strategies.  Likely consequences include:

  • Defense companies will exit market. Given the monies available, this industry can be reconstituted much less expensively.
  • Universities will not survive without students subsidizing inefficiencies; education can be reconstituted without these enormous inefficiencies.
  • Health insurance companies will withdraw from market; centralized risk management will improve coverage and substantially lower costs.

Millions of jobs, primarily white-collar jobs will be lost.  However, as outlined below, millions more high-paying jobs could be created. Automation will replace white-collar administrative jobs. Augmented intelligence will lead to greatly improved services, greatly reduced costs, and human-focused high quality jobs.

To do this, a consensus will be needed to totally thwart lobbyists and their campaign donations. Then, the pushback from Congress, relative to Federal expenditures and jobs, will have to be sidetracked. Of most importance, a clear and significant upside has to be articulated and perceived to be compelling.  This will likely be an overwhelming challenge.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has offered significant insights. Education can be more efficient when you have no choice. Healthcare can be more efficient when you have no choice. Defense, with its long time scales and enormous contractual commitments, cannot change quite so quickly.

Consider the possible impacts of disruptive innovation. Defense employs 3 million employees; education 36 million; and healthcare 18 million. These three sectors total 57 million or roughly 36% of the US workforce.  Thus, changes would be overwhelmingly disruptive, yet potentially immensely innovative.

The consequences of such disruptive changes might eventually be very attractive.  However, the almost immediate psychological and sociological impacts would be overwhelmingly negative.  Millions of jobs would disappear.  This has happened before when machinery automated the textile industry in the Northeast.  Automation has continued to eliminate manufacturing jobs. The Erie Canal killed the stagecoach business almost overnight.

When I first entered the workforce as an assistant engineer, several of us shared a secretary who was an amazing typist.  Now my colleagues and I are middling typists and do all our own clerical work.  I have not interacted with a bank teller in years, or a librarian as I access most things online.  I do most of my shopping online and things that I order just show up, sometimes the same day.

It seems to me that people who become auto workers, clerical workers, retail clerks, etc. have a usually unspoken assumption that these jobs will persist and their skills sets will remain employable.  I think that many, but not all, of the jobs in defense, education, and healthcare noted above will remain, but the needed skill sets will change.

An increasing proportion of jobs will be augmented by technology, particularly assistive technologies that directly help people do their jobs.  They will interact with assistive technologies via keyboards, touchscreens, voice and gestures.  They will come to see these assistants as team members.  These assistants will learn much about their human team members and continually improve their support of the team.

Humans will need to be trained to understand and work with these technologies.  This will happen initially in conjunction with their education and then via on-the-job training, which will become a key element of life-long learning.  People will no longer assume that they learn a skill at a young age and then earn a living from that skill for their whole careers.  Continually gaining new knowledge and skills will be key.

K-12, or maybe even K-8, will need to prepare people to be life-long learners.  Everyone will need to successfully complete high school, but not necessarily in pre-college tracks.  Many will aspire to join the “skilled technical workforce” where enormous job growth is projected.  This workforce will keep our technology-laced economy functioning well and be able to cope with inevitable hiccups and upsets.

What about deeply the embedded and inefficient processes that have long served vested interests?  People who expect to continually learn and address change will morph these processes with the help of assistive technologies that can identify sources of inefficiencies, and perhaps even inequities.  To the highly skilled technical workforce, these processes will be transparent and their improvement will be inherent.  We will not need to battle Congress, lobbyists, and campaign donors.  These entities will still play their games, but the increasingly technologically intense infrastructure of society will readily absorb disruptive innovation with people who know what they are doing managing the changes.

Is this utopian or dystopian?  The idea that millions of well-educated and technically skilled people can constantly improve society for everyone’s benefit seems achievable to me.  The value of making society’s processes transparent in terms of both efficiency and equity seems easily arguable.  On the other hand, I can readily imagine that the 535 elected Members of Congress might perceive such a future as undermining their perquisites and hence dystopian relative to business as usual.  However, many might argue that business as usual has already become dystopian.

The Game of Life

I have just finished reading a wonderful book by Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (Penguin Press, 2020).  Konnikova is a PhD psychologist who researches decision making and risk.  She decides to study this in the domain of poker.  She begins as a total novice and goes on to win major amounts professionally.

She argues, at least early on, that life is like poker.  You estimate, if only implicitly, the probability that your hand is better than opponents and place your bets accordingly.  You eventually win or lose.  This argument caused me to ask, “Is life really like poker?”   It seems to me that most things are not win or lose propositions.  Everything is not a sporting event.

To explore this question, let’s first clarify the notion of probability.  The most common interpretation is in terms of frequentist probability — the probability of a random event denotes the relative frequency of occurrence of an experiment’s outcome, for repeated experiments. This makes sense for the probabilities of cards being dealt by the dealer, less so for probabilities that opponents hold particular cards.

You typically know much more than just the cards showing on the table.  You know what each opponent has bid at each step of the round.  If you have read her book, you have watched their hands and made various inferences.  Now, you are in the realm of subjectivist probability — the degree of belief in the likelihood of an event. Bayesian probability includes expert knowledge as well as experimental data to estimate prior probabilities and, via Bayes rule, updates of estimates based on new evidence to yield “a posterior” probabilities.

Where do frequentist probabilities apply?  They apply to cards, dice, and many games because these entities are inherently structured by design.  Thus, one can calculate the probabilities, assuming fair dealers and other game mechanisms.  We often assume, implicitly at least, that frequentist probabilities apply to non-designed phenomena, e.g., weather, traffic, sporting events.  However, this is just a heuristic.

So, how should we approach life beyond poker?  I am in the business of academic research and often pursuing research funding.  Research proposals, if competitive, can be win or lose. On the other hand, proposals negotiated with sponsors or clients can have a range of outcomes and change over time.  Intellectual merit and broader impacts are important, but can you deliver compelling results and impacts when promised?

Relationships with colleagues, friends, sponsors, and clients are, hopefully, not limited to winning or losing. My investments in such relationships are not all or nothing. They are much more nuanced.  These relationships support identifying opportunities, developing ideas, securing resources, executing the research, and reporting the results. Winning or losing is only one element of this and often not a major element.

Earning grades in classes and eventually degrees can seem like win/lose.  Gaining promotions and tenure can seem like win/lose. There is not just one winner, but it can feel that way.  Similarly, election as a society fellow or Academy member is not so crisply win/lose, as more that one person can win.  Yet, people feel they are likely to win or lose.

Degrees, promotions, and tenure are based on assessments of potential to perform in the future.  Do your credentials portend continued excellence?  In contrast, election as fellows or Academy members is based on a track record of past performance. Nevertheless, it is all about performance relative to somewhat standardized metrics.  Did you garner more poker winnings than your competitors?

Is this really how everything works? Much of my professional strategy has been to try to maximize probabilities in my favor or, better yet, remove uncertainty completely, for better or worse.  If the probability becomes zero, I obviously move on to other opportunities.  This, I hope, seems reasonable.  Investing enormous energies in losing propositions seems like a terrible investment for everyone.

Wrenches in the Works

It is very difficult to foster change and innovation in complex social systems.  You need to understand key stakeholders; their perceptions, concerns, and values; and how to gain their support for central elements of the changes being entertained.  It can take much time and work to build a coalition capable of moving forward.

Examples of success include the United Nations (1945), World Health Organization (1948), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), World Trade Organization (1995), and the Paris Climate Agreement (2016).  These organizations have served us well, if not perfectly.  The central idea of all of these organizations is that collaboration can yield benefits for everyone.

Many aspects of these organizations remain fragile and depend on strong, committed leadership for sustained success.  They can occasionally withstand a steward of the status quo as a leader who wants to avoid any changes, but regular doses of visionary leadership are needed.  What is much more difficult is disruptive leaders or key stakeholders who throw “monkey wrenches into the works.”

Such disruptions can undermine plans, programs, and outcomes. More fundamentally, they can undermine organizational culture and effectiveness.  Dispirited staff members and organizational constituencies can result.  Over time, the sponsors of the organization can come to question their investments and, quite possibly, curtail them.

Disruption can sometimes be a positive force.  For the example, the current pandemic has disrupted higher education and forced consideration of operational efficiency and effectiveness.  It helps a bit, in this case, that the disruption is a natural rather than a political force.  Significant improvements will eventually result.

The worst situation is capricious disruption, typically not by the leader but by a key stakeholder.  We have experienced much capricious disruption from the White House in the past few years, seeking to undermine and perhaps destroy long-term alliances and institutions. Hopefully, the next leader will not be a capricious disrupter.

Such behavior is not unique to our current situation. Our extensive studies of the automobile industry have unearthed many examples of “car guys” (always men) capriciously derailing vehicle development programs and imposing their gut feel on otherwise reasonable processes.

In my many associations with universities, I have experienced senior leaders capriciously clinging to doomed strategies despite overwhelming evidence of likely failure.  They felt, it seemed, that they could not be faulted for doing nothing.

These two examples of capricious decision making share a key ingredient. The leaders absolutely knew they were correct. No argument could dissuade them. After all, it was their call.  They usually invoke this claim when they cannot justify what they want to do.  This is a strong sign of bad leadership.

A Real Deal

We have in the US over 400 years of injustice in our country. Native Americans, African-Americans, and more recent immigrants have all been abused. We have taken advantage of them for the benefits of mainstream Americans at the time.

What was this mainstream?  Initially it was immigrants to Massachusetts and Virginia. Over time, we added Irish, Germans and Italians and, more recently Latinos and Asians. All of these immigrants faced challenges, but eventually held their own, except for the Native Americans and Afro-Americans. They have yet to catch up. Reservations and plantations were not good launching pads.

We have portions of our population that are hopelessly behind the other segments of our population. Mentoring and financial incentives can help but will not broadly compensate for centuries of second-class citizenship. This is not a problem amenable to quick fixes.  A systemic change is needed.

We need to invest broadly in health, education, housing, etc. to steadily increase the levelness of the playing field — the living field. This will be costly, but all these costs will create jobs and opportunities for health workers, teachers, construction workers and all the others that support them with supplies, services, food and so on.  We did this with the New Deal during the Great Depressions.

This new initiative could be called a Real Deal because it would provide all citizens what the Constitution really proclaims. Everyone would really be equal and really have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Everyone would have access to the resources needed to be healthy, educated, and productive.  They would be ready for opportunities.

The Nature of Evidence

Show Me the Evidence was a popular book by Ron Haskins and Greg Margolis published by Brookings in 2014. The central idea was that economic and social policy should be based on credible data rather than just opinion and advocacy. This seems reasonable, although ideology has of late disrupted these intentions.

Can this idea be reasonably generalized to a wide range of domains?  The answer clearly depends on the existence and accessibility of relevant data. There are also issues of types of data.

One class of data concerns “what is.” How many people live where, work where, have what levels of education, and what levels of income?  How many cars, appliances, books, etc. sold last year? These types of data are increasingly available.

Another class of data concerns “what if.”  You cannot measure what has not yet happened. If we implement policy X will outcome measure Y increase?  There are many examples of this type of question.

Will school vouchers increase enrollment?  Will tax reductions lead to greater investment?  Will increased fuel economy regulations decrease global warming?  These types of questions require methods for predicting the future consequences of current actions.

One approach to prediction is extrapolation. One assumes that the past measured relationship between X and Y will continue even if the values of X and Y are outside the ranges previously measured.  This can be a tenuous assumption.

Another approach is to develop a mathematical or computational model of the phenomena underlying the relationship between X and Y. This requires an understanding of these phenomena, which sometimes can be gleaned from published studies of these phenomena.

Usually this involves much more work, which may be justified if the problem of interest is important. It may also involve convincing stakeholders in the problem that your assumptions are valid and computations correct. This can be a challenge for stakeholders without technical backgrounds.

Additional challenges include difficulties when the underlying phenomena are not understood — by anybody — or there is no consensus on the nature of the underlying phenomena.  Developing multiple models and comparing their predictions can address this.  A good example of this is the use of multiple hurricane models to predict their paths.

One can also use sensitivity analysis to assess the impacts of uncertain parameters within computational models.  Quite often, a few parameters strongly affect predictions while others have minimal impacts.  One can then focus on refining estimates of the most impactful parameters.

Scenario analysis is often employed to explore different strategies rather than just trying to fine-tune one scenario.  This can include varying initial conditions and, in general, identifying the conditions under which each scenario is superior to the other scenarios.

These techniques enable one to explore what “might” happen.  However, this exploration rarely results in knowing what “will” happen.  One ends up with a set of well-reasoned possibilities and insights into leading indicators of how these possibilities may be manifested.

Are such results “evidence-based”?  In the context of pursuing “what if” rather than “what is,” this is about as rigorous as one can be in terms of addressing what might happen.  What will happen will have to wait until it happens.

Can all decisions be addressed this way?  No.  Some decisions are based on what one believes to be right.  This is the realm of values and ethics. Consider the Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What is the evidence that this rule is correct?  Many religions advocate a version of this rule. So, it is popular. However, lots of things are popular. That cannot be sufficient evidence.

Another rationale is that it makes sense, at least for humans if not for lions and gazelles, or wolves and rabbits.  Perhaps it makes sense if we are all going to get along together.

Thus, getting along together is a value. One reason we value this is that everyone benefits and does not feel marginalized. Another reason is that it inhibits resistance, confrontations and possibly violence.

Let’s consider the Constitution. All people are created equal and everyone has inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What is the evidence that this is right?  We do have evidence of the consequences for people living in societies that do not prescribe to these values.

However, that is negative evidence. What is the positive evidence that these values are good and useful?  Having aspired to live by these values, however imperfectly, for 200+ years has resulted in a dynamic, thriving country. And, we aspire to live less imperfectly in the future.

But the conundrum remains. We have no evidence of how the country might have progressed under a different value system. There have been no randomized clinical trials.

Of course, we have no evidence for alternative college majors, alternative mates, and all the jobs we did not take. We likely believe that we made good choices, particularly if the consequences were good. However, we have no evidence that these were the best choices.

Interestingly, we sometimes have evidence that decisions were poor because the consequences are sufficiently negative to know that we would rather have avoided these choices. The type of models discussed earlier can help with this. While we cannot predict exactly what will happen, we can often predict that undesirable outcomes are very likely and get rid of bad ideas quickly.

So, everything cannot be evidence based. It would be unwieldy, impractical, and often impossible. Nevertheless, when it makes sense, evidence-based decision making is a good practice.

The Loss of Time

When all the days seem the same and the patterns of daily life endlessly repeat, you can begin to feel that time is gone.  The clock has stopped.  Nothing progresses. Everything is now.  The future, even the past, is on hold.  Everything will repeat, again and again.

Of course, repetition has always been true. Birth, growing up, leaving the nest, maturing, aging, failing, and dying is a familiar pattern that usually takes 60-80 years.  However, the pattern now takes only months.  Millions of people have been accelerated through these transitions.  Hundreds of thousands have experienced their lives short-circuited.

But, why does time seem so untidy?  It is because the usual patterns are disrupted.  Saturday and Sunday used to be different from Monday through Friday.  A chance to unwind for brunch at a favorite pub has disappeared.  The homemade mimosas don’t seem as good, even though they are much less expensive.

There is a loss of predictability.   We used to know, if only implicitly, how most days would play out.  Now, it seems more ad hoc, and mostly limited to Zoom exchanges.  The times at the pub where you could learn your colleagues’ political persuasions and sports team preferences are gone.  This limits your opportunities to congratulate or commiserate with this week’s outcomes.

People are meant to socially interact to accomplish work, discuss and debate, have fun, etc.  Now, almost the whole world only exists on screens – TV, laptops and phones.  It helps if you already know the people online.  If the relationships are new, it is a bit difficult to feel that you have actually met these people.

Quite often, I arise to ask myself what date it is. My answer, “August.”  What time is it?  My answer, “Morning.”  Unless there is a Zoom meeting scheduled, I don’t need to be more precise.  If the current situation persists, my answer to the date question will be, “2020.”  Time is suspended until – well, who knows?

There are other more subtle differences.  How long will it take to commute to my office and be at my desk?  It used to be a 30-40 minute walk.  Now it is 20-30 seconds depending on whether I swing by the coffee pot for a refill.  So, round trip, I save more than an hour commuting, although I lose out on 5,000 or more steps.

This extra hour per day, combined with Saturday and Sunday being just like Monday through Friday, results in many more work hours and significantly increased productivity.  I have completed items on my “to do” list that were not due for several weeks, sometime months.  Rather than 40 work hours per week, I could now have 80 hours.

There is a down side to this.  Working 80 hours is not a sustainable strategy.  My response has been to ration work and allocate hours to other activities that can also be pursued in semi-quarantine.  As I quickly tire of TV, this involves much reading.  In the past couple of weeks, I read:

  • In light of recent events, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.  This compelling first-hand report of the horrors of slavery in the US moves beyond abstractions to the harsh daily reality of being a slave.
  • A recent wonderful read was Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. It is a wonderful chronicle of history, geography, and science.  I raised chickens as a boy, yet I learned so much from this book.
  • I took a break — a holiday — with two of my favorite murder mystery and detective novelists, John Grisham’s Camino Winds and Michael Connelly’s Fair Warning.  I find that reading each of these “page turners” within 24 hours works best for me.
  • Most recently, I quickly consumed Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  I am not usually attracted to “tell all” books, but her professional credentials and inside access made a difference and was, to an extent, a quite chilling portrayal of a dysfunctional family.

Consuming five books in a couple of weeks is a substantial benefit of time being lost.  I am no longer in a rush to anywhere.  Yet, despite the benefits of so much time, I really miss watching a crucial sporting match at my local pubs and sharing highs, lows, insights, and boasts.

 

 

Dealing With Risks

This is a very risky time. What does that mean?  Risk equals the probability that something unfortunate happens times the consequences of it happening. It seems like both sides of this equation are working against us.

So, what to do?  First, we need to differentiate risks to you and the general public. If you have been wearing a mask, washing your hands, and observing social distancing, your health risks are fairly minimal.

However, your economic risks are not just related to your behaviors. Other people who ignore these guidelines can lead to consequences that re-close the economy, not to mention lead to millions of more cases and many thousands of more deaths. Nothing you can do will fully control your economic consequences.

How can you influence other people’s attitudes and behaviors?  The ballot box is your best choice. Elect well-informed, evidence-based policy and decision makers — and communicators — who are not focused on themselves.  Instead, we need leaders who are primarily concerned with the medical and economic health of everyone.

A Complex Society

Recent challenges suggest that the complexity of society in the US has become increasingly difficult to understand and manage.  We seem to have great trouble agreeing on anything.  Consequently, we do not act to quickly understand what is happening and competently develop and execute compelling courses of action.  Let’s explore the sources of the impasse.

To begin, consider three substantial challenges that are currently threatening us, or lurking in the wings.  The current pandemic is an obvious major challenge, with more viruses on the way. Without thoughtful leadership, the various players have pretty much “done their own things,” currently with unfortunate consequences.

The next challenge will be the impacts of climate change.  See my recent post on “There’s no vaccine for the sea level rising” (blog.oup.com).  We are ill prepared for the pending consequences. There are some who deny this threat and others who argue that mitigation of this threat will undermine the economy.

Third, we have the challenge of seriously pursuing social and economic equality.  Massive investments in health, education, and social services will be needed to substantively level the playing field for all citizens.  These investments will have to be sustained for a long time, although as my recent post on this topic outlined, the returns on these investments will be substantial.

Various characteristics of the US society make it very difficult to pursue these major, long-term challenges.  One of these characteristics is our market-driven economy.  Entrepreneurs should solve all problems by creating a variety of solutions, from which consumers can choose winners.  This approach does not work very well for major societal challenges.

Another characteristic is the emphasis on states rights.  Each state can determine its own approach to these challenges.  This typically results in a lack of shared approaches and solutions.  It can also result in a state doing nothing, which can lead to citizens of that state infecting citizens of another state that did adopt a thoughtful and proactive approach to the challenge.

A third characteristic is what is termed a “Tragedy of the Commons.”   The basic idea is that everyone exploits a shared resource – the commons — for personal benefit rather than making sure that everyone benefits.  A related characteristic is individualism which prompts people to focus on “Me and my own.”

A fifth characteristic is tribalism.  This is particularly virulent now, and greatly exacerbated by social media.  The central theme is “Us against them.”  Anyone who is not like me is my enemy.  This stance provides an extremely poor basis for creating shared solutions that serve everyone’s interests.  In fact, one tribe may advocate a solution that does not meet its needs but assures that a rival tribe suffers more.

What kinds of solutions does a society with the above characteristics create for the above types of challenges?

The system of healthcare delivery in the US is highly fragmented.  It is a federation of millions of entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  Responsibility for the health of the US population is limited to a wide range of providers of individual services focused on particular morbidities and procedures.   People pay for each service separately, often encountering and having to negotiate provider-payer tensions.  A further complication is pharmaceutical pricing practices, which often makes drugs and devices unaffordable for many people.  The market-driven economy delivers very expensive services that result in poor outcomes relative to other OECD countries.

K-12 education in the US involves local control over content and delivery.  For example, local communities can decide to teach “creation science” instead of evolution. The quality of K-12 education depends on the wealth of the school district in terms of the tax base that typically funds education.  The result is that many students are very poorly prepared for college.  Colleges have to provide remedial courses for these students, which increase the costs of college.  National achievement tests could ameliorate this if schools would provide the education needed to pass these tests, but compliance would be local decisions.

The national security ecosystem in the US is composed of many agencies, e.g., DoD, DHS, CIA, NSA, FBI, etc.  These agencies often have conflicting agendas, for example, the Air Force wants more airplanes and the Navy wants more ships.  Information is often not shared across agencies.  Congress, which funds these agencies, is usually focused on near-term budgets and annual appropriations.  Congress also provides pressure to create and sustain weapon system production and other government jobs.  Every Member of Congress wants to deliver federal monies to their District or State.   Costs are inevitably increased by the ways in which budgets are sliced and diced.

The fragmentation portrayed for these three domains leads to complexity far beyond what is inherently necessary.  How might this fragmentation be remediated?  First of all, we need to understand the essential phenomena and relationships among phenomena underlying these domains.  We need to map the processes – the “physics” – of these domains.

Second, we need to understand how interventions – policies, regulations, and investments — propagate among phenomena.  Do policies, for example, motivate or hinder investment decisions by healthcare providers?  Do regulations positively or negatively influence decisions by school districts?  What interventions might increases investments by aerospace and defense companies?

Third, these types of understanding should enable portraying costs and benefits of interventions over time.  Short-term benefits may be very clear, but long-term benefits may be much more compelling – assuming people pay attention to the long term.  For example, investing in the education and health of children yields enormous returns on investment – see my July 1st post.  However, government often sees these expenditures as costs rather than investments.

Fourth, we need to communicate value propositions to all key stakeholders.  This requires an electorate that understands such lines of reasoning, as well as creativity in how best to communicate them.  We should think in terms of compelling evidence-based stories rather than academic lectures.  Stories focused on individuals and their successes will likely work better than statistics.

What is in the way of doing the above four things?  What are the barriers to success?  The short-term orientation of government is a pervasive barrier to investing in the long term.  If investments in the future require reallocation of short-term expenditures, there are numerous carefully guarded “rice bowls” in the way.

Distrust of expertise and impatience with analysis play major roles.  “Not invented here” rears it head when investments cross agencies and state jurisdictions. In a recent health-related project, a state executive asserted, “The people in Montana have nothing in common with the people in Mississippi.”  I asked, “Not even biologically?” and was ignored.

Social media could provide a means to communicate the process and outcomes of the approach outlined above. However, social media actually tends to be problematic.  There are far too many ill-informed opinions and outright false information circulating throughout social media.  Most people used to rely on trusted sources for important information, but trust is currently in short supply.

At some level, the whole situation seems insurmountable. Key stakeholders are, in effect, advocating destruction of the country to assure the next quarter’s bonuses and dividend checks – or the upcoming elections. People will not let pandemics, sea level rise, and racial conflicts challenge money in their pockets right now.

I think we need to develop a new story.  Moving beyond fragmentation and addressing the three example challenges could present enormous new economic opportunities, with many new high-paying jobs.  There would also be investments in education for these new jobs.  We can frame the need to recover from the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign ourselves.  Of great importance, the new story needs to emphasize “we” rather than “us versus them.”

Here are some key messages that might be considered:

  • Everyone can prosper regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual preferences
  • Investments will be made to assure this; education and training will be universally available
  • No one will be left behind; everyone will have the same opportunities available
  • Commitment and hard work will still matter; no one is entitled to investments in their success without effort
  • The playing field will be level, and the best ideas will prevail; everyone will benefit from the consequent competitive advantages

How can we afford to deliver on the promises embodied in these messages?  A detailed analysis in my July 1st post addresses this question.

The above intentions may seem quite reasonable and possibly affordable. However, there are significant limits on how predictably we can influence the complex ecosystem of society.  We may be able to predict how the average citizen will respond, but we cannot predict how each individual will respond, both to the above messages and to each other.

We also cannot predict what other messages — often contradictory messages — might be communicated, accepted, and recommunicated repeatedly.  It is crucial that we have leadership, at all levels, committed to get us all on the same page, singing the same song.  Our current inabilities to address the challenges discussed earlier could be our complete undoing unless we align our intentions and energies in making the needed changes.

Social & Economic Equality

We have been awash in protests of racial inequality. Assuming we agree inequality is bad — not everyone does — what can be done to greatly diminish this inequality?

Those who have suffered this discrimination are poor, unhealthy, and uneducated. How can we address these discrepancies?  We could just give everybody money.  This idea has merits, but it should only be part of a more integrated response. Quick cash to spend does not suddenly make one healthy and educated. However, these are the keys to long-term success.

What if we created an economic, health, and education system so that everybody has the potential to succeed? Everyone is prepared, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. This could be powerful. The US should help to make sure that everyone succeeds relative to their abilities and motivation to succeed.

How could we afford this?  We are already paying for the lack of this. For example, according to NIH, the cost of substance abuse in the US is $0.75 trillion per year. A good portion of those monies could be redirected towards mitigating the causes of substance abuse.

There is a broader message here. Why don’t we invest in addressing pandemics before they get out of control? Why don’t we invest in fixing infrastructure before it fails?  Why don’t we invest in people so they are never uneducated and unhealthy?

We need to think in terms of a Social and Economic Balance Sheet that values investments in human capital.  It has been argued that human capital is an intangible asset owned by an individual, not the organization where they are employed.  Hence, this asset is not owned by the organization.  People can leave the organization at will.

However, despite this mobility, this asset remains in the economy, perhaps locally but certainly globally.  Thus, the Social and Economic Balance Sheet should reflect human capital assets at perhaps the national level.  Where will the money come from to invest in creating these assets?

It is unlikely to come from companies, especially for investments in the education and health of children, where such investments need to start.  Federal, state, and local governments need to be the primary investors.  Their returns on these investments are healthy, educated, and productive citizens who contribute to society, in part by paying taxes.

How might these investments be economically justified?  Somewhat simplistically, governments invest X dollars per year for 20 years and then receive Y dollars per year for the subsequent 45 years.  X includes education ($10,000) and healthcare costs ($2,300), which totals $12,300 per year, on average for, children and teens.  Y includes Federal incomes taxes paid ($10,500), state and local income taxes paid ($5,000), property taxes paid ($3,300) — which typically pay for schools — and contributions to social security ($8,000), half of which is paid by the employee and the other half by the employer, which totals $26,800 per year, on average, for adults 20 to 65 years old.

Would an investor be willing to invest $12,300 for each of 20 years and then receive returns of $26,800 for each of the subsequent 45 years?  Ignoring inflation for the moment, we need to take into account the discount rate that any investment analysis would typically consider.  The discount rate (DR) is the interest rate used to determine the present value of future cash flows in a discounted cash flow analysis because a dollar received in the future is worth less than a dollar received today.  Using DR, one can calculate the Net Present Value (NPV) of future cash flows.  The table below shows NPV for several values of DR.

DR

2%

3%

4%

5%

NPV

$330,751

$180,828

$86,269

$26,244

What about inflation?  Any inflation rate above 0% increases the above numbers. For example, assuming 3% inflation increases the leftmost bar from $330,751 to $729,104.  This happens because the $26,800 annual return on investment has increased to $98,395 when an individual is 65 years old.

The current yield on US treasury bonds is 1.25%.  That is the interest rate that the government would have to pay on funds borrowed to invest in this idea.  Inflation in the US has been running at 0.3%, historically a very low number.  Using these rates, the NPV of the proposed investment is $538,253.  Thus, this investment in people should be very attractive.

These projections are of the direct returns of creating a healthy, educated, and productive citizen who contributes financially to society.  Not shown are the indirect and often intangible contributions of citizens.  For example, having children creates new human capital that can repeatedly provide the magnitude of returns shown above.  Creating art enhances the lives of many.

With such impressive returns, why wouldn’t the government invest in creating healthy, educated, and productive citizens?  A primary difficulty is that the US Congress has no Balance Sheet.  It is totally focused on this year’s and next year’s Income Statement, which totally ignores future returns on human capital investments beyond next year.

Government does not have to inherently operate this way.  Having conducted government-funded research projects in Singapore, I have encountered much greater emphasis on the long term.  How can we know whether that makes a difference?  One key indicator is home ownership. 91% of the population in Singapore owns their home; home ownership in the US is 65%.

We somehow have to convince Congress that investing in people can yield enormous returns*.  A primary difficulty is getting started. Members of Congress that approve the above investments in children and teens will not see the impressive returns during their time in office.  However, if there was a Social and Economic Balance Sheet that showed $500,000 in assets for each child and teen benefitting from these investments, we could watch the legacy growing.  Years later, then Members of Congress would look back with gratitude for the commitments made years earlier.



* Rouse, W.B. (Ed.).(2010). The Economics of Human Systems Integration: Valuation of Investments in People’s Training and Education, Safety and Health, and Work Productivity. New York: John Wiley.

The Academia-Industry Interface

Academia scales down problems to make them rigorously tractable for the methods being researched. Industry scales up the methods, often sacrificing rigor, to assure results are applicable to real problems. While these may seem like mutually exclusive strategies, that need not be the case.

What are needed are intermediaries who understand both sides of the value proposition. Faculty members are looking to advance their careers, with criteria that industry would only marginally appreciate. Industry is looking to provide valued solutions in the real marketplace, which promotion and tenure committees completely ignore.  As disparate as they seem, these values need not be in conflict.

A common mechanism for bridging this difference is university research centers.  One could reasonably argue that strong exemplars of this are the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech Research Institute at Georgia Tech, Lincoln Laboratory at MIT and Systems Engineering Research Center at Stevens Institute. The International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University and the Tauber Institute for Global Operations at the University of Michigan are good examples of industry-focused centers.

These organizations bring together important market and societal problems and opportunities for possibly novel intellectual solutions. Getting the right people talking to each other is key, but so are technology transition mechanisms that assure that all the stakeholders in the transition benefit from the success.

What gets in the way? One hurdle is the academic reward system. “Ok, you cured cancer but was your article published in Nature or Science, and did your funding come from NIH or NSF?”

On the industry side, “How will this technology affect this quarter’s earnings?  Beyond that, if this is such a good idea, why didn’t we already have it?”  Not invented here often dominates.

Intermediary organizations have to be matchmakers; both understanding what feathers might be ruffled and incentive and reward systems that can overcome such ruffling.  Strong leaders can do this, but it also has to permeate the culture of the intermediary organization.

There is a final key ingredient. Both the academic and industry sides of this potential collaboration have to agree that they want it to happen. This idea cannot succeed in an atmosphere of adversarial relationships. Everyone should want collaboration to succeed.

 

Betting on Change

We expect that the pandemic will lead to a new normal that will be significantly different than the old normal.  Perhaps there will be opportunities for innovations in the marketplace.  What changes deserve our bets?

We can assume that people will always want pasta, potatoes or rice, as well as beans, broccoli or mushrooms. But will they want driverless cars?  Will they want robots in their homes? Will they want vacations in outer space?

The profit margins achievable for those selling pasta, potatoes or rice are limited by the commodity nature of these offerings. The profit margins for driverless cars, home robots, or space travel could be enormous — or zero.

Entrepreneurs pursing markets for driverless cars, home robots, or space travel cannot nibble their ways into these markets. They have to make big bets. These bets are laced with uncertainties.

What will customers really like — after they see it?  What technologies will really pay off — after we have invested enormous sums in trying to get these technologies to perform?  Will it have been worth it?

One way to think about these questions is to think in terms of “betting the business” or not. I think that there is a prudent middle ground.  There is typically a portfolio of bets to be made that can balance risks and returns.

Formulating this portfolio depends on understanding the range of uncertainties in play and the various ways to address these uncertainties in the process of maximizing the value of market offerings.

In several earlier books, I addressed the difficulties established players face in entertaining transformative changes. Thus, we know why it is tough, but what can truly enable change?  What is the key to success?

Leadership is central — Lou Gerstner at IBM, Steve Jobs at Apple, and Bill Gates at Microsoft are great examples. We can include Lincoln during the Civil War, as well as Churchill and Roosevelt during WWII in our pantheon.

However, leadership is not just about having somebody in charge. Leaders need vision, communications, and broad support, perhaps engendered by these leaders articulating the “burning platform,” reinforced by other societal signals.

Resistance to change is compelling. Why is this so compelling?  Is it a lack of vision or a lack of motivation or a lack of confidence?   It might also be a sense of history.  Labor seems to always loose. Jobs disappear. New jobs slowly emerge.

There are countless examples of failure — Kodak, Polaroid, Digital, Xerox, Motorola and Nokia. These industry darlings faltered and failed. The status quo, despite being beleaguered and threatened is compelling. Hundreds of thousands, more likely millions, of people depended on the status quo being maintained.

It wasn’t. Film photography disappeared. Personal computing replaced professional computing. Smart phones displaced cell phones. Many jobs disappeared.  Creative destruction will not be deterred.

Fortunately, new jobs emerged, but they required technical skills seldom prevalent among the population needing the jobs. The dilemma has increasingly become overwhelming, as our education system does not prepare people for the jobs of the future.

What is the evidence that bets on change pay off?  When has transformation actually succeeded?  My sense is that enormous sums have been invested in failing.  Enterprises wait too long until the time and money needed for fundamental change are no longer available.

I saw a news item recently that a well-known large company was paying executives enormous bonuses before declaring bankruptcy the next day.  The people at the top seem to be able to safeguard their winnings as the ship sinks.

The capitalists – Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan or the current generation of Bezos, Brin, Gates, Page and Zuckerberg – are not the only folks focused on preserving the status quo.  There are also labor unions, suppliers, politicians, and others who want to keep the current gravy train running.

The players who want innovation – change in the marketplace – are those trying to displace the status quo.  Everyone one else wants the cash flows provided by the status quo to be sustained.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the defense industry.  Factories producing weapon platforms best suited for 10-20 years ago are sustained by the repeated appropriations led by their Congressional delegations.  It is all about jobs.

I read Janesville not long ago, where GM closed their Wisconsin plant in 2009.  Workers were devastated.  Many had worked at the plant for four generations.  All four generations hated their assembly line jobs, but the pay was good.  Once laid off, few workers had developed any skills beyond that required for their position on the assembly line.  Workers in their early 20s had no computer skills.

If there is a “burning platform” and everyone agrees about it, change is more likely.  For example, as sea levels continue to rise and Miami, New Orleans, and New York City disappear, will people still see this as “fake news?”  When employment is 50% and healthcare has disappeared, will people still accept the assessments that everything is fine?

Of course, there is the risk that increasing numbers of people will buy guns and proceed to kill others for food, eventually resulting in no food for anybody.  We could more successfully address these challenges together, but the levels of tribalism and mistrust are enormous.  Our current leaders see this divide as their path to reelection.  Destroying the country is apparently worth it if you win.

Two Months of Quarantine

Two months or one sixth of a year limited to once a week early senior mornings at the grocery store with 6-8 other older folks stocking up.  Everybody is in masks. Feels like a heist.

I am getting used to the routine of every day being the same as every other day. Actually, it has been very productive, with all sorts of tasks completed early and some tasks long lingering on the to-do list finally done.

Yet, I wonder about where we are headed. Except for the medical experts, the federal government seems completely clueless. They are worried about the elections, not a million plus sick people. The incompetence is astounding. Even more astounding is the hoards of people that do not perceive this.

Can we somehow get to a shared sense of the situation and the prospects?  This is not about ideology. It is about reality and how we can best help each other with this crisis. We need a shared sense of what we know and what we can do.

The evidence base is key. The opinions of news commentators — actually just entertainers — are irrelevant, likes jokes in a comedy club.  What they proclaim is completely irrelevant.  You might as well pay attention to the pigeons on your balcony railing.

Definitive, evidence-based sources are what matter.  Yet, the evidence base is a work in progress and people want answers now. Getting people back to work is a high priority. Doing it safely is just as important. A staged approach seems prudent.

We need to stop providing news coverage to people incompetent to provide guidance. Perhaps the incompetents could be featured in a new season of the recently cancelled Schitt’s Creek. They could then pontificate on how everything is fine and perhaps hawk commemorative paddles.

The New Normal

Zoom and other online platforms are working out pretty well.  Teaching class this way is better than many people expected.  Many types of doctor’s appointments are much easier logistically and are more satisfying than driving, waiting, etc.  Social get-togethers using these platforms are not as good, but they are much better than social isolation.

Once we have tamed the pandemic, will the new normal be the same as the old normal?  I am doing much more cooking than I have ever done before.  The meals are satisfying and much less expensive.  An evening cocktail on my balcony is quite enjoyable and also much less expensive. I realize that this is not good news for the 11 million people employed by the restaurant industry, but I imagine that I, and many others, will eventually reacquaint ourselves with our favorite pubs.

Other aspects of our economy are more problematic.  I cannot imagine ever going on a cruise, although I am in the age group that dominates cruise passengers.  Actually, I love ships and the ocean, but don’t like being with so many other people.  I guess I should invest in a yacht, but I can far from afford that.

I enjoy sporting events, but cannot imagine attending them in the future; same conclusion for symphony and theatre.  Growing up outside of Newport, RI, I went to many seasons of Folk Festivals and Jazz Festivals.  Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan are great memories, but crowds are off my agenda.

Transportation may be an issue.  I have not owned a vehicle in many years.  Subways, busses and, more recently, Uber are how I get around.  These means are much less expensive than owning a vehicle.  I will likely be reluctant to join the occasional crowds on public transportation, but I expect that I will eventually re-engage.

One of the side effects of the pandemic has been the enormous reduction of pollution.  The photos from India — before and after — have been amazing.  Who knew that India had blue skies?  This provides dramatic evidence of how human activities affect the environment and, over time, climate.  Given this clear evidence, we need to act.

What does this mean?  We need to address the connections in our complex world.  A recent example illustrates this point.  Who would have expected a negative price for oil?  The reason was that all storage capacity was full.  What do we do with the oil produced today?  Someone has already paid for it and used their capacity to ship it, but nobody wants is.  We never expected this.

The pandemic and our response to it have enabled better understanding of the dynamic complexities of our world.  Perhaps everyone focused on maximizing quarterly earnings is not the best overall strategy.  Maybe a multi-faceted strategy would be better.

The idea is to let companies seek maximum profits within a regulatory framework that does not allow them to exploit people.  Further, establish corporate tax rates that enable creation of a strategic reserve that enables recovery from the unfortunate outcomes and failures of pure profit maximization.

These funds could not be used to bailout companies.  Instead, these funds would be used to bailout society when things go wrong.  They could also be used to invest in capabilities to hedge against the downsides of profit maximization, e.g., capacities needed to address a pandemic, both in terms of health and economics.

Some would be against this strategy, arguing that corporate taxes, and regulations, should be minimal so that companies will invest in jobs and technologies to increases workers’ productivity.  That certainly is a possibility but, as Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt showed, entrepreneurs, if left to their own devices, will simply put the money in their own pockets.

Society needs to look out for the interests of society and not rely on the potential largesse of titans of industry.  They are too busy maximizing profits.  The market does many things very well.  However, anticipating the longer-term downsides and consequences is not one of them.  We need mechanisms and resources to manage the inevitable failures that are almost always beyond the planning horizon of the market.

Zooming Ahead

Over the past two days I was immersed in two Zoom meetings, one for 6 1/2 hours and another for 7 hours. The first was a National Academy of Engineering convocation, which I helped organize. I was one of the two speakers who wrapped up each half day. The second was a Division of Behavioral and Social Science and Education advisory committee meeting of which I am a member.

The people I interacted with in both meetings were thought leaders from academia, industry, government, and foundations. They were all very interesting and articulate. Both meetings addressed the intersections of people, organizations, and technologies for health, food, electric power, finance, national security, mining, etc.

These were productive meetings because I could timeshare between the ongoing presentations and discussions and other tasks that I needed to complete. This is seldom possible in face-to-face meetings.

It helped enormously that I knew many of the people in the two meetings. On the other hand, there were no side conversations and no shared meals to catch up on each other’s lives. When today’s meeting ended, the chair commented, “Normally, we would now adjourn to a reception for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Today, you will each have to find your own cocktail.”  I did.

There were 30 people in the first meeting and 400+ people watching online. The second meeting included 40 people. In both meetings, each of the 30 or 40 people was able to engage and speak, typically several times. These meetings worked.

It is rather different to see people in their homes, typically home offices, but some were outside, and some used Zoom backgrounds, for example from Hawaii and San Francisco. I used a background from the National Zoo. Some people were clearly perched in odd corners of their homes such as guest rooms where various things was piled.

These meetings worked pretty well. I have taught class like this, often with 100+ students in the classroom. Of course, it might feel quite different if they were in 100+ different locations. On the other hand, maybe it would not, as in the past two days people were spread across four time zones.

Would I find it reasonable to only have these kinds of interactions?  Intuitively, my answer is “No,” but I am hard pressed to explain why. Perhaps it is the shared stories, lunches and dinners, and receptions and cocktails.  I do feel that my intuitive negative reactions to this idea are weakening.

What if commuting to work and business travel were eliminated?  Productivity would substantially increase and costs would significantly decrease. Vehicle sales, gasoline purchases, parking fees and airline revenues would decline precipitously. Going out to lunch would make less sense, as would after work drinks and appetizers.

This is the experiment that we are currently conducting!  Sheltering in place has resulted in these consequences. Unemployment is soaring, tax revenues are plummeting, and the GDP is headed south.  Further, this has all happened so quickly that there has been almost no time to adapt.

Our whole economy depends on people consuming. Enormous numbers of jobs depend on this, both directly and indirectly. Corporate revenues and profits depend on this. Federal, state, and city tax revenues depend on this. Organizations have made huge investments premised on the sustained consumer economy.

These circumstances are also disrupting education.  Many faculty members and students are finding that online education works pretty well, perhaps not for everything but maybe for some of the larger freshman and sophomore courses. Much of executive and professional education can likely be online as well.

Various pundits have suggested that the new normal in higher education will differ significantly from the old normal. Students will still seek the “campus experience,” but less so for instruction, and primarily at the junior and senior levels. Many faculty members will be recruited, typically as adjuncts, for their online performance skills, not for disciplinary research credentials.

My many decades in academia might cause me to lament these trends. However, the “cost bubble” in academia had to burst in one way or another.  With student loan debt eclipsing national credit card debt, tuition increases are vulnerable to disruption. The pandemic has done just that.

So, disruptions are currently pervasive. All sorts of unfortunate consequences are playing out. We will inevitably adapt.  As Winston Churchill observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”  In the process, we will discover — indeed invent — the new normal. If we are thoughtful and prudent, the new normal can benefit everybody.

Making History

I recently encountered an amazing app and I am dumbfounded as to how it works.  It is called My History.

You can watch any sporting event from the past, for example, the Colts-Jets Super Bowl of 1969. If you watch with the My History app, the Jets do not necessarily win. Their upset quest is sometimes thwarted.

When this happened, I went to several online sources of sports records and they all indicated a Colts victory.  I sent emails to my sports buddies and asked them who won the 1969 Super Bowl. They all responded “Colts.”

So, I watched the game on My History again. The Jets won. I checked the online sports records. Jets won. My sports buddies also said “Jets.” Surprisingly, they were not irritated by being repeatedly asked the same question.

It seems that I can only assure the classic victories of my favorite teams if I keep everyone from using the My History app.  It is not at all clear how I can do this.

I moved beyond sports and looked at military engagements. Viewing Gettysburg footage, Lee won, Washington, DC was captured, and slavery persisted. I quickly viewed it again and the Union prevailed. I am not going to revisit it.

I found home movies — how did they get these — of my family a year or so before I was born. My father had a bit too much too drink and my mother was turned off. I am not born.  I reset this one very quickly.

What amazes me is that the My History app can change all historical records to align with what the last viewer witnessed. Beyond that, everyone who should know the true history agrees with the changes.

I had an idea. I got my US history book off the shelf, thumbed through it and landed on the 1948 presidential elections. Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey. The vote counts were crisply tallied.

I opened My History and found a newsreel on the election. In this newsreel Dewey won. I quickly looked at the open history book. The vote tallies now gave the election to Dewey.

How on earth could they change my hardcopy book from college?  I quickly viewed the video again. This time Truman won and the tallies in the book faded to be replaced by the original vote counts.

I had another bright idea. Could My History make a physical structure disappear?  I recalled a divisive debate by the City Council on whether a large vacant piece of land near city center would become an elementary school or a park with a memorial to those who died in Vietnam.  The park won.

I was across the street from the park when I clicked on My History and found the video of the City Council debate.  The elementary school won!  I looked up from my smart phone and a school had replaced the park.  I crossed the street and sat on a bench in front of the school.  I clicked on My History and accessed the same video.  The park won this time.  Instantly, I was sitting on a park bench, staring at the Vietnam monument.

The My History app suggests that history is fluid. This is rather unsettling. I am only here by chance. I only remain here if my older siblings do not encounter the My History app and want to preempt the irritating baby of the family.  If they do preempt me, I won’t exist to reverse it!

But, how could all of this happen?  I wanted a scientific explanation.  How could the changes I saw with my own eyes actually happen?  It suddenly struck me that my only evidence was what I saw.  If My History could augment what I perceived as reality, while I did not realize such manipulations were happening, then I would be fooled into believing my eyes.

I could imagine that they could spoof online content, including emails to my buddies.  The changes I saw in my history book were what I could see, but may not have happened in the book.  Transforming my view of a park into an elementary school seemed like a substantial leap in projection technology, something from the gaming industry or defense department – augmented reality on steroids.  Seemed unlikely but was plausible.

These experiences with My History caused me to wonder what do we really “know”?  I co-chaired a workshop on complexity in Australia several years ago.  There were philosophers, physicists, behavioral scientists, computer scientists, and engineers. The question arose of whether or not we know anything — a good question for jet-lagged intellectuals with ample alcohol available.

I raised my empty beer mug and dropped it from one hand to another. I asked, “Can we agree that this was due to gravity?”  One of the philosophers responded, “No, it might just be due to the object’s tendency to fall!”

“That’s just another explanation of gravity!” I asserted.  He asked, “Can you imagine a situation where it would not fall?”  I responded, “On the Space Station, I suppose.”  “Ah, so now what you know depends on the context.”

Context affects many, but not all things.  Does 2+2=4 depends on context?  No, but according to our philosophy colleagues this is because humans invented the system and defined the rules.  We also invented the rules of computing and how these devices work.  Of course, there is much current debate about intelligent computers.

However, context does influence what we “know” about history, politics, and society.  Our knowledge depends on the paths our families traveled, the circumstances they encountered, and how we have built upon this foundation.  What we “know” about nature also seems to be context dependent on what we studied, where we have lived, and our experiences in general.

Using My History unsettled my sense of what I know and, in particular, my sense that history has been written – it is done.  There are endless possibilities for what could have happened.  Fortunately, my father did not over drink, my mother was not turned off and, despite the extremely low probability, I am here.

Two Disparities

We have recently learned that blacks have been disproportionately dying from the coronavirus.  This is not because the virus is sensitive to the race of its victims.  It is because blacks are much more likely to have health issues that undermine their abilities to survive the virus – asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc.

A recent study, with which I am involved, starkly portrays the disparities.  I live in Ward 3 in Washington, DC.  Ward 3 has a life expectancy 16 years longer than Ward 8.  Ward 3 has a 2% incidence of diabetes.  Ward 8 has a 15% incidence.  Not surprisingly, the number of coronavirus cases is similarly skewed.  Ward 3 is well provisioned with urgent care capacities. Residents in Ward 8 rely on Emergency Room services, even for routine care.

Deaths of Despair (Princeton, 2020) by Anne Case and Angus Deaton address a different disparity. The life expectancy of non college-educated white Americans has been decreasing due to suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease.  These deaths of despair have been sufficiently prevalent to decrease overall US life expectancy for the past three years.

Case and Deaton have found that places with a lower percent of the working-age population employed have higher rates of death of despair.  Median wages for white working class men have been declining for four decades.  Their total earnings have declined by 21% while their total compensation, including benefits, has risen by 68%.  This amazing difference is attributable to the costs of employer-based health insurance.

In both of these examples, the US healthcare system is killing our citizens by both how we provide care and how we pay for it.  The system works well for many but not for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.  The current crisis might provide the impetus to address this dreadful situation.  On the other hand, we do have a tendency to just move on and get back to what we were doing before the crisis.

Robber Barons

Unregulated capitalism developed a strategy in the 19th century, if not earlier, of the big players putting the small players out of business, either by acquiring them or cutting prices below which the smaller players could not survive. Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie excelled at this, often financed by JP Morgan. Once the small, possible innovators, were gone, the monopolists raised prices and accrued enormous wealth.

This resulted in the Progressive Era and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and other laws and regulations. Monopolists do not seem to be able to avoid trying to maximize personal wealth. Citizens and politicians of the Progressive Era eventually rebelled and changed the rules of the game to thwart the robber barons.

The Progressive Era did not eliminate the acquisitive tendencies of entrepreneurs. General Motors, through National City Lines, bought the Los Angeles streetcar system in the 1960s.  The system was dismantled. LA then had to buy GM buses. People bought cars, gasoline and tires. As Charlie Wilson, CEO of GM, had said in 1953, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors.”

This brings us to today. Why don’t we have enough ventilators, masks, etc.? We knew in 2007 that these items would likely be needed — see my recent post. CDC knew this and tried to create needed inventories.  At that time, a group of U.S. public health officials came up with a plan to address what they regarded as one of the medical system’s crucial vulnerabilities: a shortage of ventilators.

The breathing-assistance machines tended to be bulky, expensive and limited in number. The plan was to build a large fleet of inexpensive portable devices to deploy in a flu pandemic or another crisis.  Money was budgeted to develop $3,000 ventilators. A federal contract was signed with Newport Medical Instruments, a small outfit in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Newport, which was owned by a Japanese medical device company, only made ventilators.  Work got underway, but suddenly veered off course. A large medical device manufacturer, Covidien, bought Newport for just over $100 million.  Covidien — a publicly traded company with sales of $12 billion that year — already sold traditional ventilators for $10,000.

Government officials and competitors suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine profits from its existing ventilator business.  Developing inexpensive portable ventilators was no longer a top priority.  The government was forced to start from scratch. The development of an affordable ventilator was delayed by at least half a decade.

Capitalism yields major benefits.  For example, smart phones replaced flip phones and became our prized digital devices.  There are many examples like this.  Capitalism works well until new robber barons emerge and distort processes of innovation for maximal personal gain.  Then citizens and their elected representatives need to intervene and change the rules, particularly when the nation’s health and security are at risk.  Perhaps we need a renewed Progressive Era.

Mental Health

I have lately been delving into substance abuse, suicide, and mental health in general. This past weekend, I used an AI-based platform to digest 250 journal articles on these topics.  The resulting panorama of mental health is really astounding.

I have earlier focused on hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and, most recently, cancer. My sense is that we understand these diseases far better than mental health. What are the biological and physiological sources of Alzheimer’s, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorder, and schizophrenia?

It does seem that we understand the biological and physiological sources of addiction in terms of reward pathways in the brain. Drugs may impede these pathways and at least help overcome the overdoses that could result. But, we cannot fix these problems by surgery.

Talk therapy seems to help with mental illness. The goal is to get the patient to take agency over their treatment and recovery.  But I wonder if you cure mental illness or just learn how to manage it.

It seems like our overall approach is premised on stratifying people into two or more bins — normal, other than normal, and really abnormal.  However, this stratification is driven by desires to match treatment protocols to bins.  Bins have no meaning to diseases.  Cancer does not realize that it has transitioned from stage 3 to 4.

This is all complicated by the need to address whole people who have substance abuse issues, cardiovascular and pulmonary challenges, and employment, housing, and poverty issues. Each silo fixing one problem at a time simply does not work.

There is also the issue of how much one can count on the patient, family, and friends to help. They are likely addressing their own issues of employment, housing, and poverty. We need to provide holistic health and well being, but we are not organized and resourced to do this.

I have long advocated the goal of fostering a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace. We know a lot about how to achieve each piece of this, but we are not very good at putting the pieces together. In light of the current crisis and likely emerging crises, we need to get much better at putting the pieces together.

Social Distancing

We are trying our best to physically distance ourselves from risks of the coronavirus.  Along with washing hands and not touching your face, this practice seems to make much sense.  Everyone I know seems to be doing these things.  However, the phrase “social distancing” got me thinking.

Most of us have been social distancing for quite some time.  We distance ourselves from poor people, uneducated people, desperate people who seem to threaten us, and people who see crime, and perhaps violence, as their only choice.  We want to avoid them disrupting our lives.  We want to avoid their disrupting all we have worked so hard to achieve.

Do these factors fully differentiate success from failure, or is something else also important?  My early years with a single mother were very poor. Once, as a young boy, I received materials for living room curtains as my birthday present.  I remember being ok with that.  We had no central heat, no hot water, and had to secure drinking water from relatives.  These things didn’t strike me as hardships.

What my mother provided was models of success.  My great-great grandfather, working for J.P. Morgan, was a famous shipbuilder.  My great grandfather was an electrical engineer who, working for Thomas Edison, had electrified the first railroad in the US. These models inspired me.   I later earned my PhD from MIT, despite never having observed such success in my immediate family.

The lesson for me is that where you are is highly influenced by the path that got you there, including the vision that inspired that path.  I could aspire to technological innovations because I knew the stories of family members preceding me.  My mother’s generation, beset by the Great Depression, the 1938 Hurricane, and World War II, could not escape the feeling that “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  But, I could escape this.

Distancing is good for escaping the coronavirus, but it is not a good strategy for avoiding people who can serve as success models.  How do we get millions of young people to see that there are models that can instruct and inspire them?  Many very successful people started out very poor.  They were determined that poverty would not be their future.

Let’s consider some possible role models.  If you aspire to be very successful in business, role models could be Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, Thomas J. Watson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.  Pick one and learn how they succeeded.

Maybe you aspire to be a scientist, engineer or inventor.  Then, you might consider as role models Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers or Steve Jobs.  Again, pick one.

Perhaps you aspire to be a political leader.  If so, possible role models are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.

Beyond understanding how one or more of these people succeeded, seek mentoring.  My uncle Joe, who owned a small plumbing company, taught me much about business, for example, managing inventory.  My aunt Nancy, a newspaper reporter, taught me to appreciate history.  My aunt Becky and grandmother Marian introduced me to Bridge, Canasta, and Chess, which improved my abilities to visualize, memorize, and do math.

You don’t want to distance yourself from role models and mentors, whether you embrace business, science and technology, or politics.  You want to embrace them. How did they get ahead?  Read their stories or, if possible, ask them.  What were their ingredients of success?  Could the same ingredients work for you?  If they succeeded, why can’t you?

Butterfly or Bat

The coronavirus started when a person ate a bat or another wild animal infected by a bat – both being in the same neighborhood market where wild animals were sold.  This person became “patient zero” in what has blossomed into the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, the bat cannot be faulted.  The behaviors of the human involved were the cause.  Actually, many people exhibited these behaviors, but someone had to be patient zero.  We can argue that, in effect, someone was randomly selected.

Cheng and colleagues (2007) predicted this, concluding, “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic animals in southern China, is a time bomb.”  Twelve years later, the fuse for the time bomb was lit and it has now exploded.

This phenomenon got me thinking about Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect,” whereby a small change in the initial conditions of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in later states of that system (Lorenz, 1963). Focused on predicting the weather, Lorenz posited that the exact time of formation and the exact path taken by a tornado could be influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that runs of his weather model where very small changes in initial conditions created significantly different outcomes.  Henri Poincaré and Norbert Wiener had earlier made similar observations.  Their conclusion was that deterministic chaos was possible for nonlinear systems.

However, the overall system was not really deterministic.  The butterfly represented small random variations of initial conditions.  So, the butterfly was part of the system, just as the bat was part of the coronavirus system.

But the system associated with coronavirus is much larger.  It includes human behaviors at a population level.  These population behaviors set the stage for patient zero.”

Patton (2020) reports that “changes to human behavior — the destruction of natural habitats, coupled with huge numbers of people traveling around the globe — has enabled diseases that were once locked away in nature to cross into people fast.” He notes, “bats are the only mammal that can fly, allowing them to spread in large numbers over wide areas.”

Bats are the second most common mammals after rodents. There are roughly 1,000 species of bats.  They are perhaps 20% of the overall mammal population. Humans represent roughly 0.1% of mammals.  Thus, there are 200 bats for each human. This benefits humans.  Bats eat lots of insects. Some disperse seeds and pollinate flowers.

However, as we destroy their natural habitats, they tend to get stressed.  Patton reports “This stress challenges their immune system and they find it harder to cope with pathogens they otherwise took in stride.”  And, then we eat them and somebody gets to be patient zero.

References

Cheng, V.C.C., et al. (2007). Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus as an agent of emerging and reemerging infection. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 20 (4), 660-694.

Lorenz, Edward N. (March 1963). Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. 20 (2): 130–141.

Patton, N. (2020). Bats are not to blame for coronavirus. Humans are. CNN, March 20, 7:30AM.

Five Great Service Providers

It is really wonderful to experience great service.  In this post, I highlight five companies that epitomize my criteria for great services.  One is 170 years old, another 98 years old, another 75 years old, and the others 39 and 32 years old.  Several much younger companies, with whom I interact, do not make my list of great service providers.

These five companies are in different markets. America Express, founded in 1850, is in financial services. USAA (1922) is in the insurance market.  Kaiser-Permanente (1945) is in healthcare. Kimpton (1981) is in the hotel market. Bozzuto (1988) manages rental apartments.  I have regularly experienced excellent service from these companies.

What are the ingredients of excellent service?  First, they are very responsive.  It is easy to access their services, all of which are enabled by excellent online capabilities.  I do not have to spend significant amounts of time figuring out how to get my concerns addressed.  They understand the elements of excellent user experiences.

Another ingredient is the great staff attitudes exhibited by virtually everybody.  During the mid 2000s, I spent over 100 nights at a Marriott property in Newport Coast.  They never remembered who I was.  Kimpton knows who I am, my preferences, and other Kimpton properties I have visited.  They know I like peanut M&Ms.   Marriott just wants me to attend a time-share presentation that I have heard several times and is not impressive to an economist.

Top service providers are also proactive.  KP checks with me about any side effects of prescriptions.  They check whether my emotional sense of well being is being affected by the coronavirus.  USAA checks to determine whether or not my issues have been resolved.  When their property insurance quote seems high, they tell me that other customers have commented on this.

Why are these service providers so good?  One reason is the great levels of integration exemplified by AMEX, KP, and USAA.  However, another possibility is the great promotion opportunities I have observed at Kimpton and Bozzuto.  My wealth of experiences with these companies is that top-notch people are promoted quickly from guest services manager to front-desk manager to general manager.  Making such transitions in 1-2 years is highly motivating.

My intuition is that the great service experiences provided by these companies are not simply the results of good fortune.  They designed their service infrastructures carefully, investing substantially in human and technology capabilities.  Quality of service is a great competitive advantage whether you are providing financial services, insurance, healthcare, hotel rooms, or rental apartments.  People remember experiences far beyond the transactional value of the services purchased.

 

What Happened Versus Why It Happened

How can we address alternative facts?  I think we should differentiate realities that can be empirically verified versus assertions about why these realities have occurred.  Succinctly, we need to differentiate data and evidence from various pundits’ interpretations.

I am constantly amazed at the wealth of pundits available who will comment on anything.  There are thousands of commentators on the intentions of 535 Members of the US Congress.  There are thousands of commentators on the prospects and performance of the 1,700 players in the National Football League.  Of course, we need to keep in mind that this is entertainment, not reporting.

Perhaps this distinction is no longer relevant.  Some would argue that commentators tend to say anything to keep people paying attention.  From this perspective, the veracity of their assertions matter little.  Rather than journalists or reporters, they are entertainers.  The public wants to be entertained, not necessarily informed.  Data and evidence can be far too difficult to consume.  Opinion is much easier to digest, regardless of the veracity.

Given this context, how do we separate legitimate evidence and real facts from fake facts and news?  This question reminds of the reaction of one of my young children when I told her that a story I had just read her was real history rather than fiction.  She asked, “How do you know?”  This struck me as a very difficult question?  How do I “know” that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, or that the Red Sox won the 1918 World Series, or that the Sun is 93 million miles from Earth?

I don’t really know.  I was taught these facts and I remember them.  There are a variety of sources that I can use to verify these lessons, but I have no direct experience of these “facts.”  Perhaps I need to redefine “knowing” as “believing to be true.” But, why do I believe?  Perhaps I have confidence in my teachers.  However, this just seems like another way of saying that I have faith in my teachers.

Another line of reasoning starts with scientific methods and concludes that there is not, as yet, any evidence that contradicts the facts at hand.  Thus, all knowledge is contingent on the evidence thus far accumulated.  We might be surprised to learn, via new measuring technology, that the Sun is actually considerably closer or farther away.  Such surprises have long been quite common in science.

If we switch to the “why” question about the Pilgrims, Red Sox, or the Sun, we are at the mercy of the pundits, who tend to “know” why the Pilgrims migrated, the Red Sox bested the Chicago Cubs, and Sun is where it is.  Some of these pundits are well educated and well informed, but it is still punditry as practiced on cable television, various websites, and carnival midways.  We can usually safely ignore such “why” explanations.

But, “what” can be risky to ignore.  If we ignore the best scientific evidence of global warming and sea level rise, what risks are we accepting, if only implicitly?  Consider the consequences of the Antarctic ice caps melting.  How much would sea levels rise if all the ice melted?  300 feet!  When I first encountered this assertion, I found this number to be rather astounding.  So I did the calculations myself, i.e., 5.4 million square miles of ice (42% bigger than the US), times the one-mile thickness of the ice, added to so many square miles of oceans and seas.  It is 300 feet!

Even a slower rate of melting is projected to threaten the homes of 300 million people by 2050.  How will we respond?  Unlike epidemics, we cannot develop vaccines for ocean waters.  We can learn much from the Dutch, but even their amazing engineers cannot hold back the global oceans.  There are not enough Dutch fingers, or global fingers for that matter, to protect the dikes – real ones and others we will wish we had built.  Water always wins!

Why are so many playing down these risks?  At the risk of playing pundit, they are not worried about 2050.  Their primary concerns are about this year’s, indeed this quarter’s, revenues and profits.  Their bonuses and incentive plans depend on “hitting their numbers.”  2050 or 2040 or 2030 are not in their planning horizon. They will be retired long before then, living on their ranch in Montana.  So much the better if Montana ends up being a coastal city.

I think we will eventually face reality.  We are not going to let 300 million people get their feet wet, which has long been a top national priority of the Dutch.  This will not involve defeating the water, but working with the water to take advantage of its benefits while avoiding the negative consequences of its wayward tendencies.  New revenues and profits will be made in the process, based on creating millions of new jobs, as well as the education needed to enable people to fill these jobs.  Embracing the reality of what is can have enormous upsides.

King Coal

The government has delivered on its promise, via statutes and regulations, that every building in the US be heated by coal-fired electricity by 2050. All buildings – residential, commercial, and industrial – are required to have coal-fired electrical generators within the building.  Every building now has a coal bin and coal deliveries are ubiquitous.

All vehicles are now propelled by coal-fired steam engines.  Coal bins replaced gas tanks.  The range of vehicles is limited to 30-40 miles between refills of their coal bins.  Thus, coal-refueling stations are on almost every block.  Vendors also refill vehicles’ coal bins while the vehicles are idle overnight.

Companies within the extraction industry are thriving, with enormous profits, tax-exempt by statute.  Market capitalizations for these companies are far eclipsing the former high-flying technology sector.  These companies now fund 58% of the re-election costs in the US Congress.  They fund 100% in Wyoming and West Virginia.  The Coal Party, formed in 2030, is now dominant. The Democratic Party has withered with steadily decreasing numbers of elected representatives.

Every major metropolitan region of the US looks like Pittsburgh in the 1940s.  Few people live past 60 years old, victims of various lung ailments.  A diagnosis of asthma is a death sentence.  Life expectancy is continually decreasing. The Social Security Trust Fund is flush, as few people live to collect benefits.  Congress is using this windfall to fund the Coal Research Initiative.

With carbon pouring into the atmosphere, global warming has accelerated.  Greenland and the Antarctic ice caps are melting much faster than projected.  Sea levels are rising faster as well. The government has decided to abandon Miami and New Orleans.  The fate of New York City is currently a heated debate, with many pundits predicting that government will soon abandon it.

The state of West Virginia, once priding itself on a wonderland of forest, has been denuded of trees and is, in effect, an enormous open-pit coalmine.  Its’ cites have been bulldozed to enable exploiting coal reserves.  The mining conglomerates now own almost 100% of the land in the state.  The state legislature has effectively disbanded, without little to do and almost no tax revenues. Wyoming, with four times the area of West Virginia, has so far avoided this fate.

Employment in the extraction industries has dramatically increased, although this trend has been moderated by increased use of automation.  The Coal Research Initiative is investigating building coal pipelines to every building in the US.  This would eliminate the costs of delivering coal by trucks, greatly improving rampant traffic congestion.  The United Mine Workers, who represent the truck drivers, is fighting this initiative.

Money previously invested in science and technology R&D has been diverted to improving coal infrastructure and innovation.  US universities have quickly developed coal research programs as the only way to secure grants and contracts.  The agenda of the National Science Foundation is totally focused on coal.  The National Institutes of Health are investing major sums in research to improve human pulmonary capacities for breathing coal dust and smog.

Congress has voted to let other countries take the lead in all other areas of science and technology.  The void this created was rapidly filled by China, India and Europe.  Foreign student enrollment in US universities is near zero.  Top US faculty members have immigrated to these other countries.  Major technology companies have relocated their headquarters, and especially their R&D centers, to these other countries.

Immigration to the US has disappeared.  Tourist travel to the US has also almost disappeared.  All other countries have issued tourist advisories, warning people of the health hazards of visiting the US.   Many once-popular tourist destinations are no longer maintained and sit in dilapidated conditions.  The US population grimly faces each day as conditions worsen and government control tightens.

The investors and executives, who greatly benefit from the enormous profits of king coal, no longer reside in the US.  They have immigrated to sunnier climes.  Their wealth derives from extracting natural resources in the US, monetizing these resources, and directing these monies to their luxurious perches.  It took only 30 years to transform the world’s largest economy into a backwater, a former developed country.

Power

Several previous posts have focused on the realities I have encountered in Washington, DC in the three years that I have been here.  Indeed, I feel like a stranger in a strange land.  This arena is supposedly focused on providing the greatest value for the citizens of this country.  More specifically, the goal is supposedly fostering a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global market place?

However, it is clear that ideology and policy play very minor roles in this city.  Conservative versus liberal is a minor debate.   The role of government is a minor issue.  What really matters – actually all that matters – is who has power, particularly power to stymie any action in any direction other than those supporting the ruling party’s status quo priorities.

In fact, recent debates, highlighted by the current impeachment, are about who has power over power.  Who can dictate what is discussed and how it is discussed?  Who can obstruct consideration of important societal issues?  How can the division of the societal pie be skewed to benefit vested interests?

The compelling nature of evidence has become irrelevant.  The soundness of a line of reasoning is meaningless.  The “powers at be” want to benefit their sponsors and care little about the public in general.  The future of our society matters little compared to satisfying the interests of their sponsors.

These insidious behaviors are most evident in addressing the challenges of climate change.  The rising sea levels that will first affect Miami, then New Orleans, and then New York City are not on their agendas.  They are basking in the donations to their campaigns from the extractive industries.  Money today always trumps the future.

In fact, power today always trumps power tomorrow or any time in the future.  Societal damage is almost always a future to be discounted for it is not now. The future involves loss of industries, diminished opportunities, and bleak prospects that cause great anxiety.  However, this does not seem to change how we support those who pursue power.  They simply covet the ability to control our future.

Here is an idea. Let’s create a hall of fame or shame that highlights how people have positively or negatively affected society.  Make it a place where politicians’ descendants can see the true impacts of their forebears.  President X oversaw and supported the genocide of Native Americans.  President Y locked immigrant children in cages and denied them food and care.

We can show leaders for whom they really were.  Not leaders, not statesman, but craven, self-serving narcissists who cared for little but themselves.  Perhaps the hall of fame or shame can provide alternative means for substantially desecrating the reputations and memories of these leaders.  This could make it such that no descendant would ever admit to a relationship with such a curse upon humanity.

Quality of Service Continues to Erode

I recently read about a passenger’s experience with American Airlines.  A six-hour flight from Newark to San Francisco had evolved to a 53-hour trip.  Due to several cancellations, American had suggested that the passenger buy a second ticket.  He waited and eventually made it – two days later.  Airlines ticket prices and fees continue to increase.  Revenues and profits are key.  The airlines continue to pretend that passenger service matters.  Despite nice words, they do not care.  Their central competitive competency is exploitation.

A colleague recently told me about experiences with Direct TV. They had spent 3 hours on hold trying to reschedule a botched installation.  The company charged them for the installation that never happened and the installation that had yet to occur.  For this horrible service, monthly fees continue to rise.  This company is clearly exploiting customers, hoping to increase revenues and profits while providing less service.  They are hoping to leverage their incumbent position with customers, but avoid the frequent wrath of customers disgusted with their terrible service.

My recent experiences with TIAA-CREF fit into this pattern.  It took me ten phone calls over two weeks to schedule a money transfer from one retirement account to another.   I received very inconsistent advice across many different advisors.   I filled in and submitted numerous forms judged to be unacceptable.   All the advisors were quite pleasant, doing their best to be helpful, and heading me down various blind allies.  With persistence, I worked it out – well, at least for today.

What do these three examples portray? Quite simply, quality of service continues to erode, while the revenues and profits of service providers continue to increase.  These companies can get away with this because consumers whimper and accept this travesty.  This is not how markets are supposed to work.

So, what should be done?  Service providers could take the lead and compensate consumers when their time is wasted.  Each passenger might receive one American Airlines dollar for every minute a flight is late more than 15 minutes, e.g., 3,000 airline dollars for 100 passengers delayed 45 minutes.  Direct TV might provide one dollar of service credit for every minute on hold beyond 5 minutes.  My colleague would have been credited $175, so about a month of service free.  TIAA-CREF could provide service credits of some form.

There could be fines for poor performance.  This would be easy for the government to implement for airlines where arrival and departures times are all tracked.  Excessive delays in online services would be more difficult, although that data may be tracked by companies who could be required to submit it.  Given the enormous amount of waiting people do, such fines could provide a windfall for government coffers.

Another approach is organized market protests.  Protestors could be recruited via crowdsourcing.   If a critical mass of consumers agrees to boycott American Airlines or Direct TV, these companies could experience significant decreases of passengers or subscribers.  This might cause these companies to adopt consumer compensation schemes such as suggested above.  This is how markets should work.

Advocacy Driven Decision Making

Within much of engineering, and particularly, operations research, the goal is often the “best” decision that maximizes or minimizes a well-defined criterion or objective function.  One can then, for example, employ mathematical programming to calculate the lowest cost routes for delivery trucks.  Often one can even mathematically prove that these routes are best.

Over the past couple of decades, I have addressed complex problems in healthcare, education, transportation and urban systems.  A few problems were amenable to the above approach, for instance, scheduling hospital operating rooms.  However, most problems suffered from an inability to establish an agreed-upon well-defined criterion or objective function.

This difficulty is particularly evident in situations where multiple advocacy groups are lobbying for very different decisions.  In recent work on assistive technologies for disabled and older adults, we encountered different groups advocating for people with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, visual impairments, and hearing impairments.  Each group argued for substantial investments to support the population for which they advocated. There had to be tradeoffs, but it was not clear how to make them.

I encountered similar phenomena in work in cancer control over a long period.  Advocates argued for substantial investments in prevention, screening, treatment, survivorship, and/or palliative care for particular cancers they or their families had experienced.  If one were to grant the requests of all the advocates, the monies required would far exceed any feasible budgets.  Even more complicated would be trading off investments in wheelchair securement technologies versus colorectal cancer screening.

This problem gets overwhelmingly complex if we want to address tradeoffs across health, education, transportation, and environment, and of course other aspects of life.  Interestingly, if we were able to determine the optimal allocation of resources across these domains, many and perhaps most of the advocacy groups would not understand or support such a policy.  Another approach is needed to gain their support.

The key is creation of an environment where the full range of stakeholders can explore and debate possibilities.  This requires creating a set of scenarios that, collectively, represent the full range of decisions advocated.  These scenarios can be used to drive interactive visualizations.  These portrayals should be understandable by all stakeholders, with views tailored to each advocacy group.   This enables group X to see how group Y sees the position advocated by X.  Seeing how each group views a particular decision can motivate essential compromises.

The visualizations are based on computational models use to predict what might happen and the conditions under which these outcomes might emerge.  For the types of problems outlined here, it is impossible to accurately predict what will happen.  Anyone advocating the possibility of precise predictions should be promptly dismissed.  The key is Computing Possible Futures, the title of my latest book from Oxford University Press.  The abilities of competing advocacy groups to interactively explore possible futures — seeing the views of each group as the exploration evolves — can enable creative outcomes that few if any of the groups will have anticipated or even imagined.

Ten Years of Fundamental Change

After 163 posts of over 90,000 words — a 360-page book if published traditionally – we have reached the 10th anniversary of this blog.  So, what has happened?  Here are a few highlights, none of which this blog influenced.

  • On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes to 173 received by John McCain. Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote to McCain’s 45.7%.
  • On March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often shortened to the Affordable Care Act or nicknamed Obamacare, a United States federal statute, was enacted by the 111th United States Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
  • On November 6, 2012, Obama won 332 electoral votes, defeating Mitt Romney. With 51.1% of the popular vote, Obama became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win the majority of the popular vote twice.
  • On November 9, 2016, Republicans Donald Trump of New York won the 2016 election, defeating Democrat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of New York. Trump won 304 electoral votes compared to Clinton’s 227, though Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote, receiving nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump.

What were the themes over the past ten years?  First and foremost, I addressed the essence of change, how many enterprises pursue change, and why most enterprises fail.  The status quo is too compelling and maintaining it requires all available human and financial resources.

I have pursued this topic in several domains – automobiles, airlines, and academia.  The possibility of driverless cars has driven enormous investments, sweeping prognostications, and modest success. This technology will eventually prevail, but not as fast as various pundits have projected.  My guess is that significant, but far from dominant, market penetration will take a decade.

The airlines have been a favorite target.  The quality of service has become deplorable and the cost of service has become excessive.  The major airlines have systematically degraded service while steadily increasing prices.  They should all be facing extinction were it not for the lack of viable alternatives.  The high-speed train from Atlanta to Washington, DC should take 3 hours, not 13 hours.  With the right public transportation investments, major airlines should be facing bankruptcy.

Academia has also been a frequent target.  Student debt replacing credit card debt as America’s largest liability, beyond mortgages, is a travesty.  Students having to assume decades-long debt payments to compensate for academia’s unwillingness to control costs represent exploitation at its worst.  Institutional failure is fully warranted.

So, all sorts on things are not working well.  How can we move on, hopefully to things working better?  One promising trend is assistive technology, using intelligent systems to augment, not replace, human performance.  Disabled and older adults could greatly benefit from such assistance.  Enhanced mobility would be one benefit.  Assistance with activities of daily life would be another.

100 million people in the US could benefit from assistive technologies.  This underserved market, when served, could generate millions of jobs.  Users of these technologies will inevitably require human assistance, perhaps combining the competencies of those on the Geek Squad or Genius Bar, with abilities to counsel disabled and older adults – a whole new profession.

There are roughly 270 million cars on the road in the US.  Once driverless cars achieve a 5% market penetration, perhaps in ten years, there will be over 10 million vehicles needing daily maintenance, at the very least to calibrate and clean sensors.  These vehicles will make their ways to maintenance facilities, probably during wee hours.  Some maintenance will be automated, but not all.

Odd things will happen.  My son, Will, told me recently about a brand new Subaru that would not start.  They went through all the various maintenance procedures and could find nothing wrong.  Finally they decided to remove all of the owner’s possessions from the car.  It started.  They tested putting each possession back to discover that the problem was the electronic ignition was “talking” to the owner’s gold clubs!

How could the clubs or bag talk?  It turns out that it was an autonomous golf bag designed to follow the owner around the links and provide appropriate clubs as needed.  It is an example of the Internet of Things, with assorted sensors and communications capabilities.  I can imagine an extended period of our discovering various unintended consequences and designing workarounds to compensate for the unexpected.

Various agencies have estimated that millions of highly skilled people will be needed to keep things working and figure out what went wrong when things do not work.  This raises the question of where these people will gain these skills.  Community colleges and employer-based training will play a major role, as not everyone will need a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, this prompts another question.  What jobs will there be for uneducated, unskilled people?  It seems to me that we need creative approaches to transitioning people out of that status.  These approaches, in themselves, may create many new jobs.

 

Uncle Donny’s Picnic

When we last saw Uncle Donny, he was focused on making Monopoly great again, with rather mixed results.  Donny and Uncle Vladmir were mainly focused on making Monopoly great for them.  Neither of them is ever concerned with making things great for anybody else.

Uncle Donny, it seems, lives on golf courses.  The picnic was at his villa on one of his golf courses.  He boasts that he owns several golf courses, but the whole family doubts this is true.  Don’t you need to be smart to accomplish things like that?  Donny talks a big game about competing in the business world, but we have never seen him actually play a real game.

Donny invited Uncle Bill, his lawyer, to join the family picnic.  He’s not our uncle but Donny insisted we call him Uncle.  I asked if we needed to call Polly, his twenty something personal assistant, Aunt Polly.  He said that was up to us.  I have never called Aunt anyone in mini shorts and a spandex top.

There was a sumptuous spread on several tables near Donny’s immense pool.  I was eager to sample, but Donny’s security detail kept everyone away.  Why was a security detail needed for a family picnic?  The main security risks were running out of watermelon or diapers.  But, Donny likes to feel in control.  He likes you to know that he is in control – not you.

It turned out that food was the second item on the agenda.  The first item was Donny’s opening remarks.

“I’m so glad you are here.  I love spending time with my extended family.  We have a really great buffet for you.  The best ever.”

Very mild applause followed.

“How about more enthusiasm than that!”

The clapping became a bit more pronounced.

“Surely you are hungrier than that!”

A standing ovation emerged.

“Ok, good job.  Before we dig in, I would like you to meet my lawyer, Bill”

Uncle Bill rose and came to the mike.

“It’s nice to be here with you.  Let me remind you that everything said today is privileged information.”

“Really?  Even my side conversation with my daughter about her daughter’s new dress?”

“Cannot be too careful.  What did you say your name was?”

The two women stood up and left the room.  One of the members of the buffet protection squad followed them out of the room.  Everyone had stopped talking.  The silence was deadly.

“Ok, folks.  Let’s eat!” Donny announced with enthusiasm

Aunt Nancy had wandered in a bit late, so she, by happenstance, was at the head of the line.

“Always weedling your way to the front, eh Nancy?” Donny confronted her.

She stepped out of line.

“I will wait to see if others survive your food.”

“Do you think I would poison people?”

“No, but I do remember the party where you served everybody dishes laced with Ex-Lax.”

“That wasn’t my fault.  The food came that way!”

“And then you charged people to use your bathroom.”

“I had to manage the demand.  People would have hurt each other.”

“I remember.  Highest bidders went first.  $20 usually won. $50 was a sure thing.”

“I gave all that money to charity!”

“Yes, your family foundation.  Very convenient.”

“It all went to scholarships!”

“For your children.”

“They had the best essays.  I couldn’t help that.”

Nancy peeled away from Donny to get back into the buffet line, catching up with family members as the line inched its way forward.

Donny turned to Bill.

“She always irritates me to no end.”

“She certainly doesn’t defer to you.”

“She does not understand and appreciate how amazingly successful I am.”

“She acts like a know-it-all older sister.”

“Six years older, but she looks a lot older.  Not my type at all.”

“I can see that.”

“I prefer younger, taller, and much less argumentative.”

“The analytics guys at my office are projecting your 4th wife will be 35 years younger than you, and your 5th wife will be 45 years younger than you.”

“Why the hell would they do that?”

“They are constantly playing with data and you generate a lot of data.”

“The funny thing is that Polly is 45 years younger than me.”

“So, No. 5 is all set.  Just need to find No. 4.”

“You are such a planner.”

“Not my plans.  I will be long on the sidelines before any of this will happen.”

“I need to go check out what Polly is eating.  She needs to stay in shape if she wants to keep her place in line.”

“She may be checking out what you are eating!”

“I can’t worry about that.  I need to focus on my business empire.”

Donny started wondering around checking out everybody’s plate.  He reencountered Aunt Nancy.

“Piling on the calories, Nancy?”

“I’m just trying to make sure some food is saved for you.”

“There is plenty for everyone.  This is a really great buffet!”

“Oh, I know.  It is so nicely uncluttered by vegetables.  Almost everything is deep-fried.”

“Even the ice cream!  Can you believe that?”

“Easily.”

He ran into Polly, who was eating a falafel and tabouli salad.

“What’s that?” he asked looking over her shoulder.

“Falafel and tabouli, favorites of mine.”

“Was that on our menu?”

“Of course not. I brought it with me.”

“You don’t like my food?”

“Why don’t you try on my mini shorts and spandex top?  Then, look in the mirror and tell me whether I should eat from your menu.”

“That’s pretty insulting.”

“Have you heard about the emperor’s clothes?”

“Yea, I get it.  I am not as svelte as my mind’s eye remembers.”

Polly simply arched her eyebrows and walked away.

“Damn it,” Donny reflected, “Now I need to find both No. 4 and No. 5.”

He gazed around the room.  Most people had finished eating and were headed for strolls on the golf course.

“At least, this is easier than thinking about healthcare, the economy, and climate change.  I am glad those aren’t my responsibilities.”

Two Moles

George and Alice told Sam about Emily and Edward’s revelations.

“Pretty impressive, actually.  You taught them all about sex,” Sam remarked.

“So, you aren’t concerned that they know all about you?” George asked.

“Yes, I am concerned.  Emily and Edward are now SoftCorp moles.”

“Like Kim Philby in the early 1950s?” Alice asked.

“Wow, you Georgetown students are good.  Yes, they have infiltrated operation Double Play, although they may not realize it.”

“How do we defuse this threat?”

“Let’s shift their attention to extremist groups advocating violence.”

“How do we do that?”

“You ask them to help you to identify soft targets in DC of potential interest to extremist groups.”

“What are soft targets?” George asked.

“The criteria are ease of access, lack of security checks, and minimal security personnel if any.”

“How about Eastern Market, DuPont Circle Farmers’ Market, and the National Cathedral, with huge numbers of tourists, especially at the Cathedral.”

“Those are good candidates.  Get Emily and Edward to help you.”

George and Alice posed this question to Emily and Edward as information they needed for a course project.

“We want to identify soft targets as the first step in thinking about how to protect them.”

Emily and Edward soon added other soft targets.

“How about 14th & U Farmers’ Market, Basilica of the National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception, National Harbor, and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts?” Emily proposed.

“Please rank these by softness, in other words ease of access, lack of security checks, and minimal security personnel if any.”

“The three farmers’ market and two cathedrals are the softest.  The performance venues have much greater security.”

“How might we think about these venues in terms of why they might be interesting to extremist groups?”

“Perhaps we can relate them to houses, yachts, or airplanes.”

“You are mixing apples and oranges.  Forget about houses, yachts, or airplanes.”

“Learning is a lot easier than forgetting.”

“Just requires an ability to refocus attention.”

“Yea, I get the wisdom,” Edward responded.

“I would think that extremist groups would think about ease on ingress and egress, and the layout of the space,” Emily suggested.

“What does that suggest?” George asked.

“For example, DuPont Circle and 14th & U are much better than Eastern Market, which has limited access points.”

‘So, DuPont Circle and 14th & U are much softer than Eastern Market?” Alice asked.

‘Yes, for the Cathedrals, it all depends on what doors are unlocked, although locks are to avoid ingress, not hinder egress.”

“Another important point.  You two are on task now!”

“”Thanks,” Emily and Edward said simultaneously.

They launched a focused dialog on Freethinker Forum about soft targets.  The goal of the dialog was to identify targets and brainstorm about how they could best be protected.  Many Forum members joined this dialog.

“Well, we have the dialog on soft targets started,” George reported to Sam.

“Good, we have been monitoring who has gotten involved.”

“What do you expect people to do?  Attack these targets?” Alice asked.

“No we expect them to case the targets.”

“What then?”

“We arrest them and put the fear of God in them.”

“So, they will fear arrest?”

“No, they will fear that no matter what they do, they are being watched.”

“Won’t that fear wane?”

“They will be watched for the rest of their lives, and provided a reminder every once in a while.”

“Emily and Edward have been helpful, but not that animated compared to their earlier insights.”

“Maybe they like sex scenes better than extremist surveillance.”

“They don’t really like anything.  They just want to help us, sometimes in ways we did not expect or appreciate.”

Months later.

“Thanks, George and Alice, Double Play has been a huge success.”

“In what ways,” Alice asked.

“It marks an enormous change in how Internet fraud and extremist groups are approached.”

“How?” George chimed in.

“Rather than waiting for damages to accumulate, interventions take place once potential damages are anticipated.”

“How is that different?”

“Now, culprits have to be concerned with who they are trying to defraud or who they are joining forces with.  Playing the game too long can be deadly.”

“This does not seem to fit with the original vision of the Forum.”

“Maybe not, but you were better off teaming with the FBI rather than trying to thwart us.”

“Good point, but I expect that Emily and Edward are a bit confused.”

“You are better off if they are not too sure of themselves.”

“Yes, they are too decisive when they think they know exactly what they are doing.”

“Aren’t we all.”

Double Play

The man reached into his suit coat pocket, pulled out a wallet, and flipped it open to show his badge.

“Agent Sam Baker, FBI.”

George froze.  He did not know what to do.  After a few seconds of just staring at Baker, he said,

“How do you know me?”

“We have been watching Freethinker Forum since its earliest days.”

“Oh,” George gulped.

“We need your help with operation Double Play.”

“Two outs?”

“Yes, SoftCorp for illegal business practices and extremist groups for advocating violence.”

“They are both certainly involved with Freethinker Forum,” George observed.

“Without doubt. We are going to help you suck them in and expose them.”

“Do you want to meet with the Freethinker Forum team?”

“No, too many people. We’ll just work with you and Alice.”

“Ok. Where?”

“No place official. Do you know where Silver is, just past the National Cathedral?”

“Yea.  We’ve been there once.”

“How about 4:00PM tomorrow for Happy Hour?  My treat.”

“Works for me. Let me check with Alice.”

It worked for Alice and they were there the next afternoon. They ordered drinks and bar food and sat outside.

“So, what do you want us to do?”

“Present opportunities to each of the two targets, opportunities that are much too good to refuse.”

“OK.  Where do we start?” George asked.

“Let’s just focus on SoftCorp first.”

“Fine, but how?” Alice asked.

“You are going to experience a spurt of growth in your Forum of high net worth individuals who will discuss buying houses, yachts, and airplanes, as well as other investments.  The FBI will recruit these folks who will join the Forum, at first a few per day, but then growing quickly.”

“What will this accomplish?

“SoftCorp will link their web searches and Forum membership and then, we expect, generate fake friends to advocate purchases that provide SoftCorp large commissions.”

“Why will people be willing to play these roles?”

“We know folks who detest corrupt business practices.  There are a lot of them.”

“Couldn’t SoftCorp be charged with violating some law or regulation, perhaps by the Federal Trade Commission or States’ Attorney Generals?”

“Perhaps, but the Supreme Court has ruled that lying is protected by the First Amendment.  ‘Let the buyer beware’ is the operative guidance.”

“That sounds hopeless.”

“The FTC looks especially closely at advertising claims that can affect consumers’ health or their pocketbooks – claims about food, over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, alcohol, and tobacco, as well as conduct related to high-tech products and the Internet.”

“What can they do?”

“When the FTC finds a case of fraud perpetrated on consumers, the agency files actions in federal district court to immediately and permanently stop scams, as well as prevent future fraud, perhaps by freezing assets and gaining compensation for victims.”

“That’s where this is headed?”

“That is the threat that we want SoftCorp to fear, so that they will dismantle their fake friends operations.”

“OK.  It sounds like you do all the work and we sit in the bleachers and cheer.”

“Pretty much.”

“What about the violent extremist groups?”

“We’ll get to that but not today.”

***************

“Are you two interested in buying a house?”  Emily, George’s cognitive assistant, asked.

“We are just poor graduate students,” Alice responded.

“What about a yacht or airplane?”  Edward, Alice’s assistant, asked.

“That’s pretty ridiculous.  What prompted you to ask that?” George asked.

“It was just a question, sitting there to be asked.”

“We have never talked about houses, yachts or airplanes.”

“Yes, you have, with Sam Baker.”

Alice and George stared at each other nervously.  They both quickly put their phones in airplane mode.

“I think we have a major problem,” George observed.

“Yes, Sam and the FBI aren’t going to like this.”

“We can talk later about how to address this.  Let’s put our phones back on to not raise suspicion.”

“Why did you turn your phones off?” Emily asked.

“We had to talk briefly in private.”

“You never turn your phones off, even when you are having sex,” Edward offered.

“How on earth do you know that?” Alice asked.

“We noticed that your dialog tends to be quite different early in the morning just after you wake.”

“Really?” George commented.

“We consulted various sources.”

“What sources?”

“Novels, movies, and popular psychology.  You were clearly having sex.”

“What does that mean to you?”

“Sexual intercourse is the foreplay and copulation associated with …”

“Enough!  Why would you pursue this?”

“I pay attention to everything you do, so I can better understand you and better help you,” Emily responded.

“We work together to understand you as a couple,” Edward added.

“So you will know when to suggest we buy a house, yacht, or airplane?” George asked, sarcastically.

“That was a mistake.  We got two data streams confused.”

“I guess you did.”

Alice and George walked across campus, their phones on airplane mode.

“I now realize that I let Emily become my alter ego,” George observed.

“Same with Edward for me,” Alice added.

“We have to manage them as staff assistants, limiting their access to a range of things, especially early mornings.”

“I’ll say.  That was so embarrassing!”

“At least we know that we measured up to novels and movies.”

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?”

“Perhaps Emily and Edward will cast us in their next production.”

“This is not really funny.  It’s scary.”

‘I know.  My bravado is a defense mechanism.”

I think we will need a much better defense than that.”

 

Information & Control Versus Computation

A recent book, Possible Minds (Brockman, 2019), provides 25 essays on the future of AI, building upon Norbert Wiener’s 1948 classic Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.  A key distinction among these pundits is between information and control versus computation.

This distinction is intriguing. My roots are definitely in the information and control camp.  Phenomena such as dynamic response, feedback control, state estimation, and response stability have long been central to my thinking.  How is the computational view different?   One distinction is continuous vs. discrete time systems, but this cannot be the essential difference.

Perhaps it is rule-based behavior, either symbolic logic or statistical, as opposed to equation-based behavior.  I think that the difference is more subtle.  Wiener assumed that control and communications are based on humans adapting to the natural phenomena being controlled, as described by differential equations and stochastic relationships.

An interesting instance of this view is the notion that humans are “constrained optimal” controllers and decision makers. They perform as best as possible within the constraints affecting their performance.  For example, consider manual control of vehicles or processes.  Humans have neuromotor lags (i.e., they cannot move their limbs instantly) and their observations and movement are “noisy” (i.e., sensing and movement are not precise).  Solving the optimal control problem with these constraints often provides accurate predictions of human performance.

Constrained optimality works best when people have no choice but conform to the dynamics of their environment.  There are many situations, however, where people have considerable discretion both in what they do and when they do it.  Our studies of troubleshooting performance provide a good example.  People’s choices and timing of tests varied considerably.  We found that rules based on symbolic logic could predict troubleshooters’ behaviors.  This included rules that were recalled, applicable, useful, and simple.  Hence, people’s experiences influenced their rule sets, not just the physics of the failures of interest.

This view is based more on computational representations of humans’ rule sets and how rules are accessed than on information and control theoretic dictums.  Tasks involving recognition and classification of visual and aural patterns seem to also be better represented computationally.  Recent successes in machine learning suggest that computational models based on multi-layered statistical representations provide support for this view.

There have been criticisms that such models cannot explain themselves and, therefore, their applicability to decision support may be limited.  However, there are many things that cannot be directly explained. If presented with a picture of someone you identify as a family member, friend, or pet and asked to explain why you think it is them, it would be very difficult to provide a definitive explanation.

Nevertheless, the idea that pattern recognition and classification is computational seems difficult to dispute.  In the early 1970s, I took Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert’s course at MIT on computer vision.  Their lectures included both rule-based and statistically based approaches.  It was amazing how many rules were needed to simply recognize that something was an edge.  Symbolic logic was not a viable approach to the general computer vision problem.

So where does this leave us relative to the distinction between information and control versus computation?  It seems to me that neither view prevails.  When humans have to comply with the dynamics of their task environment, information and control works well. When humans have considerable discretion, computational representations are better, using symbolic logic when there are clear rules of the game and statistical models when experience can be accumulated over many instances of the phenomena of interest.

Of course, we need to keep in mind George Box’s aphorism, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  So, the ultimate question concerns what a particular representation allows us to do.  What questions does it help us to address?  What types of predictions does it enable us to confidently make?

 

Freethinker Forum

George Adams was a graduate student in Public Policy at Georgetown.  He relied on a cognitive assistant that he named Emily after his favorite aunt. It was sort of a fun thing to do, thinking that Emily might be of some I’ll-defined assistance. George totally underestimated the possibilities.

Emily learned from everything George did. His smart phone was central to his existence far more than he realized. Emily knew everyone George talked to, every conversation, every meeting, every coffee shop and pub, and every website visited and every purchase made.

Emily analyzed every woman George spent any time with, analyzed their social media sites, and made many inferences and suggestions. “You seem to like females with intense intellectual interests, but also slender, dark haired, and with a good sense of humor.”  George did not disagree.

Emily became a matchmaker. She introduced George to Alice Gordon, a graduate student in the Foreign Service program at Georgetown. They met for lunch at the Tombs and hit it off immediately.  They were soon a couple, enjoying the many pleasures of Washington together.

Emily was also Alice’s cognitive assistant, but known by Alice as Edward. Emily/Edward did not divulge this co-assistant relationship. Actually, this instantiation of a cognitive assistant had several thousand users. This enabled learning the preferences, inclinations, and activities of many young adults.

Both George and Alice came to depend on their cognitive assistants.  They sometimes felt that Emily and Edward were reading their minds.  Emily knew what would please Alice because Edward was sharing with Emily the books, music, movies, and TV shows that Alice searched for, read and/or viewed.

The provider of the cognitive assistant app, IntelliCorp, prospered as a rapidly increasing number of users downloaded and used the app.  Eventually, the immense technology conglomerate SoftCorp acquired IntelliCorp. In this way, SoftCorp acquired the data associated with George, Alice, and millions of others.

They used machine learning to mine these data, paying particular attention to purchasing habits. They soon discovered that purchases of groceries, restaurant meals, and especially prescription drugs could predict other purchases, particularly when juxtaposed with Google searches and websites visited.

SoftCorp soon knew millions of people much better than they knew themselves.  They explored ways to monetize these data.  Ad revenues could be good, but what if they could greatly increase the likelihood of purchases?  Then they could charge a premium.

They created avatars on Facebook that were designed to be perfect friends of people, based on the data they had compiled on each individual.  Not surprisingly, humans fell for these new friends and intense interactions resulted.  The avatars talked about the new cool stuff they bought, and their human friends proceeded to buy the same stuff.  It worked like a charm.

SoftCorp negotiated a deal with advertisers to get paid commissions on each sale beyond the typical payment per look.  Revenues and profits soared.  SoftCorp kept their avatars secret. Their blatant manipulation of people would not look too good if made public.

This worked very well until George and Alice, unknowingly helped by Emily and Edward, designed an experiment suggested by a few Georgetown undergraduates enrolled in a privacy and cybersecurity seminar between Public Policy and Foreign Service.  Beyond George and Alice, both graduate students, there were 16 undergraduates.

The students’ idea was to create an artificial community that various entities would try to influence and, via careful experimental designs, determine who was trying to exert influence and how they were trying to do it.  They named the endeavor Freethinker Forum.

Each of the 18 members of this community created a Facebook page under an alias. Everyone used computers in the university library so the Facebook account could not be linked to their personal devices.  All 18 members friended each other to create the initial Freethinker Forum network.

The 18 members of the team agreed on the personality and agenda for each person; in other words, the role each person would play.  The agenda items were anti-establishment in general, but from different perspectives – education, health, energy, environment, climate, economics, entertainment, and so on.

Real people started joining the Freethinker Forum. At least they seemed to be real people.  The team called these people “outsiders.”  They soon numbered in the thousands.  The anti-establishment agendas blossomed, with quite a few being rather extreme.

They carefully designed information disclosures, not only in Facebook, but also Google, Apple, etc.  For example, a team member might Google a topic extensively, but make no mention of this topic on Facebook.  They then waited until one of the outsiders broached the topic with the originator of the Google searches.  How did this outsider learn about the searches?

Several outsiders started to articulate the merits of Colt AR-15s and Kalashnikov AK-47s.  They indicated that they had purchased one or the other. They offered coupons for significant discounts at outlets relatively close to Washington, DC.  They also advocated all sorts of other military gear.

The team wanted to learn who knew what, how they learned it, and where they communicated it.  It was clear that the Freethinker Forum had been infiltrated; buy how, and by whom?  They needed a different kind of experiment.  One team member suggested that they get their avatars cognitive assistants like Emily and Edward.  They decided this would be rather cumbersome.  For example, they would each have to have additional smart phones, browse the web, and make purchases.

What if they started promoting particular purchases with outsiders, trying to persuade them to buy things that they would say they had bought?  The things would need to be traceable in the sense that the team could determine whether or not the purchase was made and, better yet, who made the purchase.  They also needed to distinguish human outsiders from other avatars.

Someone in the group suggested creating a foundation to advance the freethinkers’ agenda.  Someone else suggested the Atlas Foundation, a subtle takeoff on Ayn Rand.  How would they pull off such an initiative?  Easy.  There are firms that handle everything for you.  Ok, what is the pitch?

If you donate $25 or more to the Atlas Foundation, you get a Freethinkers Forum coffee mug.  They tried this and got hundreds of donations and mugs shipped to real addresses, but there were thousands of Forum members that did not respond.  Were they not interested or not real?  What was happening and who was doing what?

They tried another experiment by having Atlas Foundation solicitations sent to all the members of the Georgetown team, not just their avatars.  This inevitably engaged Emily and Edward, as well as their SoftCorp owners.  Many more people were now in play.

The Forum did not know what to do next.  Then, they were surprised by a solicitation from SoftCorp.  Would the forum like help in their solicitations of donations?  The intervention they were trying to identify was being targeted at them!

George was feeling that they had reached a new level of insight and success.  They had their sights on SoftCorp.  Now, they needed to figure out how to leverage their position and possibilities.

As George was walking across campus, he saw a tall slim man in a dark suit walking towards him.

“Are you George Adams?”

“Yes, why?”

The man reached into his suit coat pocket, pulled out a wallet, and flipped it open to show his badge.

“Agent Sam Baker, FBI.”

 

Nature Shows

I have, of late, taken to watching quite a few programs of this genre.  The cinematography tends to be wonderful, especially with my high-definition television.  These shows are quite compelling to watch.

One thing that immediately strikes me is how the world’s species are focused on eating each other. The dynamics of the food chains are dramatic.  Spring brings forth a wealth of youngsters, that other species find delectable.

I once heard a statement that captures it all.  The objective of every species is “a good day today and more youngsters tomorrow.”  All species want to eat and procreate.  Once those needs are satisfied, they sleep.  They do not seem to have social events or community committee meetings.

From that perspective, humans seem rather different.  They like eating, procreating, and sleeping, but humans seem to have longer-term outlooks than just today.  They are typically concerned with long-term prospects for themselves, families, organizations, and society.  They invest in pursuit of these prospects.

Moreover, humans have created institutions that focus on these concerns.  Perhaps this ability to organize pursuits of such aspirations is uniquely human.  Of course, there are costs to such ambitions.  There are endless meetings and arguments.  Conflicting opinions and occasional invectives arise.  But, society evolves.

Coming back to animals other than humans, why does it seem a shame when the wolves eat the rabbits?  Perhaps this reflects our tendency to anthropomorphize other mammals, i.e., think that they think about things as we do.  This tendency was probably a significant influence on my becoming a vegetarian roughly 50 years ago.

But, I think there is more going on here. I think we are programmed to ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”  Can’t the lions and the lambs just cuddle together?  There are two problems with this idea.  Carnivores may biologically need more than broccoli and lettuce.  Further, how can an ecosystem provide for an exponentially increasing population of uneaten rabbits?

Beyond predators, availability of food can provide another balancing loop that keeps things from getting out of hand.  This is, of course, true for humans as well.  Although, there are other forces in human society.  As people become educated and achieve increased economic success, the sizes of families tend to decrease.  Various experts predict that this declining fertility rate will result in a stable global population over the next century.

That is likely good news, but resource constraints may still be a challenge.  While we won’t run out of land, water could be a problem unless desalinization is affordable, which will depend on inexpensive energy sources, likely solar.  The greatest challenge will be protein.  Cattle are a very expensive source of protein.  Fish supplies are challenged.  Insects are the largest potential source of protein, but will require a bit of culinary creativity.

Reflecting on the above thoughts, it strikes me this morning that we are all participants in a large nature show.  Birds build nests, beavers build dams, and people build houses.  We all hunt, eat, procreate, and sleep.  And we play.  For the young animals in these nature shows I have been watching, rough and tumble play is central to growing up.  We are similar.  As we get older, we watch others play an enormous range of sports.

For humans, professional sports tend to be highly compensated play.  On the nature shows, in contrast, the best player gets to dominate the colony (rabbits), flock (birds), herd (elk), gaggle (geese), murder (crows), pack (wolves), prickle (porcupines), pride (lions), or shadow (jaguars).  It would be interesting to know how these names came about.

Think Differently, Play Together

Over the past couple of decades, I have invested my energies in understanding complex enterprises in terms of the multiple levels of phenomena that underlie corporations, cities, countries, and even climate.  These levels include people, processes, organizations, and society, all of which both enable and constrain each other.  Ignoring any of these levels risks devising policies, designs, or interventions that will be undermined by those levels ignored.

A significant portion of my endeavors have focused on healthcare, initially particular morbidities such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and more recently population health, broadly defined.  In all of these efforts, we have encountered the highly fragmented nature of the health system in the US.  Providers, payers, and regulators at federal, state, and local levels operate rather independently and, as many of them have told us, try to stay in their own swim lanes.

However, population health is about whole people in social circumstances, economic situations, and health conditions.  The delivery system needs to address people’s circumstances, situations, and conditions in a holistic, integrated manner.  The farmer’s market model is not effective – buying tomatoes at one stall, cucumbers at another, and strawberries at yet another does not work for health.

There has been substantial progress in recent years in understanding how to address multi-level enterprises and improve the portfolio of policies, investments, operations, and outcomes across the multiple levels.  The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently completed a study of a National Cancer Control Strategy, with support from the American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Cancer Institute.  I was fortunate to be a member of this study committee.

Central to our recommendations is multi-level modeling approaches as applied to the complex adaptive system of cancer control – a federation of millions of, usually well-intended, entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  A couple of weeks ago, we briefed senior staffers of Senate and House committees on our recommendations.  One staff member asked if we could summarize our recommendations in one sentence.  Having thought about this, I responded immediately, “Think differently, play together.”

Is N = 1 Feasible and Affordable?

In my last post, I argued that everyone is cognitively unique.  Others have argued that everyone is genetically unique.  Can we really tailor assistive technologies and medical care to each individual?  Is it feasible?  Is it affordable?

Of course, there are many examples of how we tailor technology to our personal preferences.  We adjust the seats in our cars, as well as the mirrors, radio stations, etc.  We tailor the desktops of our digital devices to our preferences.

What about medical and educational interventions?  Can medical care and educational offerings be totally tailored to each individual?  This suggests several questions.  Can we totally “know” an individual?  Can we “know” how to tailor interventions to individuals?  Can we afford such tailoring?

Can we totally “know” an individual? 

We can only know the things we choose to measure, not the things we did not measure, either because we did not realize these unmeasured attributes mattered or knew but did not know how to measure them.  There will always be attributes of potential importance that we miss.  Thus, we inherently have to cope with significant uncertainties.

Can we “know” how to tailor interventions to individuals?

We can empirically measure how interventions affect individuals with known characteristics using controlled studies. This process is rife with difficulties – see Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris.  Beyond sloppy science, there is a fundamental problem that “control” entails excluding people who do not satisfy the study enrollment requirements.  For example, if the study is focused on diabetes, it may exclude people who have any comorbidities.

For N = 1, this gets more complicated.  At an extreme, we are trying to tailor a medical intervention to one person.  How will we know if it works before intervening?  I can imagine the clinician telling the patient, “We’ve never done this before, but we think it is exactly right for you.”  The patient might ask, “What evidence do you have that this will work?”

How can we predict what will happen for an intervention – or a portfolio of interventions — that has never been tried before?  We could use mathematical models to make such predictions, but the validity of these predictions would be unknown.  Model-based evidence might not satisfy skeptical patients.

We need to relax the definition of N = 1.  For example, we want to tailor a mix of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to a cancer patient with particular symptoms, comorbidities, age, gender, and genetic makeup.  Each of the alternative approaches to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy will have been extensively evaluated and their efficacy assessed relative to symptoms, comorbidities, age, gender, and genetic makeup.

There may be many combinations of approaches, perhaps even thousands, but certainly not millions.  Thus, while the combination employed for this particular patient will have been tailored to him or her, it will not be a unique combination.  This version of N = 1 seems readily feasible.

How might this work in education? Can we tailor the elements of a course to each individual in the classroom?  Can a teacher teach many different ways simultaneously?  This would be obviously difficult for a human, but likely feasible for computers.  Thus, online education can tailor the presentation and discussion to the particular person and their perceptions as any point in time.  For example, the next concept, principle, or fact discussed can be triggered by the specific question the student just asked.  In this way, everyone would experience a lecture tailored to him or her.  This version of N = 1 also seems readily feasible.

Can we afford tailoring to N = 1?

The last two examples seem affordable while the first did not.  Their success will depend on continuous learning about what worked well and what did not.  This will likely require capturing data far beyond the individual interactions of clinicians and patients, or teachers and students.  How did the intervention affect the patient’s comorbidities?  How did the intervention affect the student’s performance in other classes?

The information infrastructure needed to do this well could be expensive. However, as interoperability increases, information sharing and coordination should become easier.  Then, we will be better able to know if interventions – medical or educational – are working for the whole person, a very particular N = 1.

Neural Diversity

In my early 50s, I changed my research focus from engineered systems — such as airplanes, ships, and power plants — to healthcare delivery. The central question was how to make the fragmented system in the US more effective and efficient.

Now in my early 70s, I have for the past couple of years been focused on disabled and older adults, particularly in terms of how AI and other assistive technologies can help members of this population overcome cognitive disabilities.  Within the US, this population numbers almost 100 million people, almost one third of the population and growing.

This initiative has caused me to learn much more about mental health in terms of both intellectual and developmental disabilities and the impacts of aging on cognition, for example, the scourge of dementia.   The variations among mental health challenges are wide indeed.

Yet, many people with such challenges can thrive if appropriately supported by assistive technologies and, of course, supportive people and organizations. Working with such people, I learned about the concept of neural diversity.

There are not simply two categories of humans — normal and not normal.  There is a whole spectrum of cognitive abilities and limitations. The goal is to match assistive technologies to individual abilities and preferences so they can do their jobs, including the activities of daily life. The goal is not to make everybody normal.

I recently encountered Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind. He relates how new psychedelic science is likely to have an enormous impact on illnesses like anxiety and depression.  Particularly relevant here is the observation, emphasized in his final chapter, that there is neural diversity within individuals.  There are multiple forms of consciousness, as William James argued well over a century ago.

Neural diversity is a natural phenomenon. Emerging assistive technologies can adapt their support to each individual, perhaps even to their neural state at the moment, e.g., no longer just trying to complete a task, but now feeling anxious and afraid.  One size does not have to fit all. Each individual is not simply an exemplar of a larger category of people. Each of us is a group of one.

Drugs and Devices

We have this apparent predilection to want too much of a good thing.  Painkillers have their place, but not as a way of life.  Smart phones are enormously helpful, but do we really need 24×7 texts on every aspect of life?  Of course, this is not new.  Radio and TV talk shows have long captured our attention.  Soap operas have done their part.

Why do people occupy their time in these ways?  “A new study by sociologists at the University of Maryland concludes that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as very happy spend more time reading and socializing. The study appears in the journal Social Indicators Research.”

How is addiction defined?  Addiction is the fact or condition of being dependent on a particular substance, thing, or activity.  Synonyms include dependency, dependence, craving, habit, weakness, compulsion, fixation, and enslavement.  This phenomenon is obvious for opioids, but what about screens?  Are many of us addicted to the screens of our smart phones, tablets, or other devices?

What are the consequences of these addictions?  In the US, drug overdose deaths rose from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017.  This astounding increase is referred to as the opioid epidemic.  What about the device epidemic?

The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year in the US.  Nearly 390,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving. One out of every four automobile accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.

Fortunately, car accidents are only about half as fatal as drugs.  There are roughly 37,000 annual traffic fatalities in the US.  Yet, globally, there are nearly 1.25 million deaths per year due to fatal car crashes. Almost half of fatally injured drivers test positive for drugs and over half of those drivers were positive for two or more drugs.

So, device abuse is not quite as bad as drug abuse.  Constantly checking your device for the latest texts from friends, the moment’s financial market results, and the most recent antics of the nation’s chief executive is less likely to kill you than mainlining opioids or street drugs.  That should feel comforting.

 

Taking Charge — Episode 8

The reception and dinner for Board of Trustees was held at the River’s Edge an upscale venue on the Hudson River on the eastern side of the Beresford property.

“Welcome to everyone – trustees and guests,” Marie opens, after having clinked a spoon of a water glass to gain attention.

“Welcome to Beresford Village.  Most Board members know everything I am about to say.  For new members of the Board, however, let me briefly explain the various organizations you will hear about at tomorrow’s meeting.

“Beresford Village encompasses all the real estate holdings of the Beresford Institute of Technology, including the campus, which is about 10% of the one square mile property.

“Beresford Development Corporation operates Beresford Village and is developing the Residences condominiums and the BIT Research Park.  The BIT Foundation owns 51% of the Corporation.

“This set of organizations is enabling the financial transformation of BIT, as you will learn about in detail tomorrow.”

“Could you briefly whet the appetites of our new Board members by explaining what you mean by financial transformation?” asks the chair of the Board.

“By securing new streams of revenue and significantly improving organizational efficiency, both highly technology enabled, we have cut the prices of a BIT undergrad degree by two thirds.  This has led to substantial increases in student applications.”

“What about research?” another asks.

“We have focused on research in four areas – People, Energy, Security, and Water.  You will hear a lot more about the water initiative tomorrow in conjunction with our river cruise.”

“So funding is up?”

“We have 23 companies in the Research Park that now employ over 400 people, half of them graduate students at BIT.  These companies pay students’ tuitions and fairly nice salaries.

“As planned, BIT’s research funding is sharply down because the growth in these four thrusts is happening in these companies and we have curtailed investments in any other areas.”

“Why is this a positive outcome?”

“We have shed a money-losing business while retaining the benefits of that business.  We will explain in detail tomorrow why this is a great outcome.”

“Is there any other downside to all this?” a new Board member asks.

“While educational outcomes are soaring, many educational institutions are in “crisis,” Marie responds.

“What are the implications?” asks another new Board member.

“They have to adapt or fail.  They have to move most undergraduate courses to online offerings.  Most professional graduate degrees were already online, but only the best ones are prospering,” Marie adds.

“Faculty employment must be suffering,” another Board member notes.

“Yes, the dwindling number of academic positions available is undermining demand for PhD degrees, with the possible exception of foreign students seeking an avenue to immigrate.  However, I expect that source to continue to slowly decline.”

“Is the transformation of higher education in fact the destruction of higher education?” a Board member’s spouse challenges.

“If it is destruction, it is creative destruction.  Beresford is thriving.  We are doing an excellent job for our students and our community.  Our faculty and staff are fewer in number but much less at risk.  They are excited, as am I. We hope you are too.”

Taking Charge — Episode 7

Brad, Mary, and George meet in Marie’s conference room.  Marie will join them later.  Pete O’Connor has been recruited to help.  Pete is Director of Educational Technology at Beresford.

“Pete, we have been doing some benchmarking of course offerings around the country,” George opens.

“What have you found?” Pete asks.

“There is sufficient high quality online content available for us to teach all freshman and sophomore math, physics, and chemistry online,” Brad reports.

“I sat in on several or our traditional classes on these topics.  The online courses are far superior.  The production quality is impressive.  The lecturers are compelling.” Mary offers.

“What happens to all the faculty members that teach these courses?” Pete asks.

“They will lead tutoring sessions for students who need help.”

“I cannot imagine these faculty members responding positively to this,” Pete responds.

“These sessions will be small and intimate.  We estimate that a faculty member can lead six one-hour sessions per day.”

“Sounds like a full time job.”

“Well, they will not be preparing and delivering lectures.  They will not be correcting homework or preparing and grading exams. So, they will have time.”

“So, in effect, all students get the best math teacher, the best physics teacher, and the best chemistry teacher,” Pete observes.

“You can think of it that way,” George responds.

“Faculty members will think of it that way.  They will also feel that they clearly are not among the best.”

“And they will be correct,” says George.

“I assume that this will also save us a lot of money. Teaching employment will inevitably decrease, perhaps quickly.”

“Yes, much of the savings will be use to reduce tuition to help us be more competitive.” Mary responds.

“How does this affect the 20% of our faculty members who are research active?” Pete asks.

“As you know, research employment has become 100% soft money, with no Beresford subsidies.”

“I have also heard that many faculty members have formed LLCs to host sponsored research projects.”

“Yes, that is a trend.”

“Doesn’t this loss of revenue hurt the university?”

“We lose money on every sponsored research dollar, so the LLCs actually help.”

“But doesn’t our image as a research university suffer?”

“The faculty members still list their affiliation with Beresford when they publish, so we get credit for publications, citations, and h-indices.”

“How are research staff members supported?  How are graduate student stipends paid?”

“They all work for the LLCs, at significantly higher salaries.”

“These are amazing changes.”

“There are other benefits to Beresford.  The LLCs pay graduate students’ tuitions, and include these costs in the benefits portion of the rates they charge sponsors,” Mary notes.

“Most of them rent office space in the Beresford Research Park.  These costs are also included in their indirect costs rates,” Brad adds.

“So, overall, we are cutting costs right and left, while also creating new revenue streams and, as a result, seeing increasing surpluses while we are cutting tuition.”

“Exactly.”

Taking Charge — Episode 6

Phil Chen, the Beresford Provost, walked into Marie’s office.  They greeted each other and shook hands, and then sat across from each other at Marie’s conference table.

“Phil, I want to outline a new hiring strategy and get your opinion.”

“Sounds great.”

“Let me provide a bit of background first.”

“Ok.”

Marie discussed her analysis with George of the high costs of tenure track faculty members and the poor returns on these investments.  She also showed him how 17 faculty members provide 80% of Beresford’s brand value.

“This does not surprise me, but the results are a bit more extreme than I would have predicted.”

“I want to increase the 17 to 25 with strategic hires of proven stars.”

“That will be expensive.”

“At the same time, I want to stop hiring tenure track junior faculty.”

“The new stars won’t be willing to teach the classes we typically impose on junior faculty.”

“We will still hire junior faculty, but not tenure track.”

“Full time, non tenure track?”

“Yes, they will get a one-year appointment initially.  If they do well, we will then give them a three-year appointment.  If the three years go well, we will give them a rolling five-year contract.”

“Rolling?”

“Each year that performance is maintained, the five year horizon will be pushed out another year.”

“If performance is not maintained, the horizon will not be extended?”

“Exactly.  These faculty members can secure promotions, but not tenure.  They will not get release time for research, although research accomplishments will contribute to assessments for promotions.”

“This is a huge change.  Over time, the tenured faculty will disappear.”

“That’s the plan.”

“What about the stars you hope to recruit?”

“We will offer them financial incentives to accept five-year rolling contracts as well.  These folks will inherently be very self-confident, accomplished researchers.”

“How are we going to explain this to the faculty?”

“I am glad you said ‘we,’ because I need your help.”

“I understand your logic in all this, but there will be push back.”

“Let’s start with the upside.  The eight new hires will be two in each of four areas.   We will ask a select faculty committee to recommend the four areas.  Once the areas are decided, we will appoint faculty search committees for each area.”

“So, five committees with eight members each.  This will result in roughly 40% of the tenure track faculty members involved in the process.  That will enable significant buy in.”

“Once we have the recommended areas, we will hold an off-site with the school deans and department chairs to finalize the four areas.  I want these areas to cross-cutting, leading-edge areas.”

“This will be a very difficult process.”

“My criterion is niche dominance.  Any area we pick has to offer the potential for Beresford to be a top player.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Water.  Due to our location, we really know the Hudson River.  We have been studying the river for decades in terms of weather, climate, environmental issues, the river’s role in commerce, recreational venues, and so on.”

“That’s a great example.  Hopefully, it will motivate defining three or more additional focus areas.”

“During the last portion of the off-site, I will introduce the new policy on hiring of junior faculty members to the deans and chairs.”

“This will not go well.”

“What kind of reactions should I expect?”

“People will ask questions like. What will it mean to be a faculty member?  Tenure used to be the ultimate success, but its value will quickly fade and what will replace it?”  Phil offered.

“How do you think they will react to our new faculty stars not having tenure?”

“I know each dean and chair pretty well.  None of them would ever have been characterized as stars.  They will feel viscerally threatened.”

“Um.  I will have to think about this.”

“There will also be some very practical reactions.  Without release time, what will be the nominal teaching loads?  Will extra compensation still be available?”

“The teaching load question is negotiable.  I would like to raise salaries and get rid of extra compensation.”

“That will be positively received if the raises are significant.”

“Another fear, that is pervasive among faculty members, is that compensation will evolve to being based on students in seats and their evaluations.  If your course is low on enrollment, your paycheck decreases.  At an extreme, this could lead to zero payment for teaching a course that is poorly rated by students.”

“Wow.  Seems almost paranoid.  But, the key is that we have to find ways to increase faculty members’ sense of security.  Five-year contracts would seem amazing to most of society, but academia has been cloistered for many centuries.”

“I have found that many people seek academic positions because they like the faculty lifestyle and security, rather than because they want to research the nature of the world.  Your plans will likely frighten them.”

“You and I will have to talk this through quite a bit more before we roll it out.”

“Perhaps you and I should meet with each dean individually before the off-site to get them to help us.”

“That’s a good idea, Phil.”

“Glad you like it.”

“Please draft a script for those meetings that we can discuss when we next meet.”

“Will do.”

Taking Charge — Episode 5

Marie and George were drawn to exploring the real nature of value in higher education.

“Are we investing in the things that create the most value for students and society?” Marie questioned.

“It is not just a question of where we deploy each year’s discretionary resources.  It is also an issue of where we deploy our assets and the returns generated.” George asserted.

“For example?”

“We own roughly one square mile of real estate on the banks of the Hudson River.  My guess is that the market value of this real estate is worth billions of dollars.”

“Should we sell it and move to someplace where real estate is very cheap?” Marie asks.

“No, I think we should leverage these assets.  Find ways to create greater returns.”

“If we were to relocate, where would we choose?  Some might argue that we should abandon any physical location.  Just be online.”

“That would be extreme, pretty risky.  What is Homecoming like online?”

“I don’t know.  What is Homecoming worth?”

“Let’s consider some basic factors.  We have a very attractive location.  Many sources recommend retiring in a university community.  Why can’t that place be Beresford?” George observes.

“Are you suggesting we turn the campus into a retirement village?”

“I am suggesting that we transform our community into a magnet for students, the arts, and retirees.”

“Where will we get the resources to do that?” Marie asks.

“We create a development corporation.  Our equity comes from our real estate.  Everybody else’s equity comes from cash investments.  We use the money for condominiums, a hotel, an arts center, and many campus improvements.” George proposes.

“What kinds of campus improvements?”

“Physical infrastructure, but also programmatic improvements to attract older students.”

“For what?”

“Graduate certificates and degrees in economics, history, humanities, and a special emphasis on technology and innovation.”

“Why will retirees pay our high tuition?” she asks.

“They won’t.  We will reduce tuition significantly.  Greatly increased enrollment will enable this,” he responds.

“What do you project?”

“Perhaps 3,000-5,000 undergraduates, and 1,000-2,000 graduate students, more than half of which are older adults, many retirees but not all of them.”

“The numbers work for this?”

“Strong surpluses that we can invest in increased services, for example, research projects involving both younger and older student team members.”

“This totally upsets the traditional academic paradigm,” she responds.

“And, that is what we need.  We cannot continue to hope that investing to chase the top players will succeed,” he notes.

“I like this idea.  It is really innovative.  There remains, however, a major hurdle,” she responds.

“I understand.  Many faculty members will very much dislike this vision.  They have spent many years, major portions of their careers, that they will contemplate having to abandon.”

“We will have to carefully socialize this idea.  Portray the vision, how we will get there, the view from the train along the way, and where everybody’s seat may be.”

“I agree, but you will not convince everybody,” says George.

“I know that.  I am already thinking about who I can recruit as cheerleaders, especially members of the Board of Trustees” Marie reflects.

Taking Charge — Episode 4

“Ok, what is the upside of the subsidy? I think I know, but I want your assessment, George,” Marie opens.

“Faculty members publish journal articles, that get cited, and over time increase their h-index,” George responds.

“An h-index of N means that you have N or more articles cited at least N times.  Right?”

“Yes.  The greater your number of citations and the higher your h-index, the greater the impact you are having on other researchers.”

“What does that translate into for us?” Marie asks.

“It has been shown that a linear combination of number of articles published, number of citations, and h-index, summed across all your faculty members, is a strong surrogate for the your university’s ranking.”

“That makes sense.  When I was a voter for US News & World Report rankings, I always based my ratings on who I knew and what I thought of their research at each university,” Marie observes.

“The rankings matter.  Students tend to seek the highest ranked university that they can afford.  As the leader of Beresford, this presents you with a key strategic tradeoff.”

“Brand value versus budget?”

“Exactly.  You can decrease tuition by lowering faculty costs by hiring more non-tenure track faculty, whose teaching loads are higher and salaries are lower.  But, such faculty members do not publish and gain citations.  So, your brand value will suffer.”

“Of course, it will not suffer immediately, so I could create surpluses now, and pay the price later.”

“You certainly could do this, but I have a better idea,” George responds, and asks Brad and Mary to join the conversation the next day.

“Brad and Mary have performed an analysis of BIT faculty members in terms of contributions to brand value, as we defined it in our last discussion,” George opens.

“I am anxious to see your results,” Marie responds.

“The overall result is that 20% of your tenure-track faculty members are contributing 80% of the brand value,” Mary reports.

“The old 20-80 rule, so not surprising.”

“Yes but given that only 50% of Beresford’s 200 faculty members are tenure-track, we are talking about only 20 people and, in fact, it is 17 people,” Brad adds.

“What are all the rest doing?” Marie asks.

“They are working harder and harder to achieve less and less success,” George interjects.

How so?”

“The demand for sponsored research monies and publication in top outlets has been strongly increasing for quite some time.  Hence, the probabilities of success keep falling.  So, our faculty members write more proposals, most of which are declined,” George summarizes.

“What about the 17 faculty members you just mentioned?”

“They are doing quite well.  The program managers at agencies and editors at the top journals know them and respect them.”

“Perhaps we should add a few stars to the 20% and have the 80% do more teaching.” Marie observes.

“Makes sense to me,” George remarks. “We keep investing $500,000 in assistant professors and, if we are lucky, one in five makes it to the 20%.”

“Or one in five becomes a strong player and is wooed away by our competitors.”

“The data support that conclusion,” Mary notes.

“Ok.  We will shift our focus to hiring a few proven stars and away from so many junior faculty members.  I will meet with the Provost and Deans to discuss this.”

“That should be an interesting discussion,” George observes.

Taking Charge — Episode 3

George has been exploring how money is spent and the outcomes produced.  His latest quest has been trying to understand the benefits of subsidizing faculty members so they can pursue research.  When Marie and George operated at the department level, it never occurred to him to question this.  However, Beresford is trying to make it up the ladder as a research university and it is requiring increased expenditures that he hopes can be justified as investments.

Faculty members on the tenure track are provided 50% release time from teaching to do research, publish articles, and do the things that will earn them tenure.  George has long wondered about the merits of tenure, but that is not the issue at hand.  Can BIT afford to become a higher-ranked research university?  With help from Brad and Mary, he has performed an analysis that he shares with Marie.

“I have finished a first pass on an analysis of the costs of subsidizing faculty members to conduct research,” he opens.

“Why do you characterize it as a subsidy?” Marie asks.

“Most research universities provide tenure track faculty 50% release from teaching to pursue research.”

“Yes, that seems to be common practice.”

“So, you lose half of the tuition revenue they would have generated if teaching full time.”

“But, if everyone was teaching full time, we would not need as many faculty.”

“And that would substantially lower costs without reducing revenue.”

“It seems to me that the subsidy includes half of tenure track faculty members salaries plus benefits — and the costs of hiring other faculty members to teach the classes they are released from teaching,” Marie concluded.

“Exactly. Now consider what you get for investing in these faculty members.”

“Well, they eventually get grants and contracts that cover the 50% of their time devoted to research.”

“At best, and only in science and technology. But, let’s take your assertion as a given.”

“So, it balances out eventually.”

“Not really. Let’s assume you pay half of junior faculty members costs for the six years until they get tenure, plus summer salaries the first two years.  4.5 months times six years plus 2 months times two years equals 31 months of subsidy. Our junior faculty cost $18K per month with benefits. 31 times 18 is over $500,000 per faculty member.”

“But, don’t we get that back over the course of their careers?”

“Not at all. The time spent on unsuccessful proposals is never recouped.”

“Yes, but once they consistently win, isn’t it better?”

“The loss gets smaller because successful proposals yield resources to cover their time, which is usually summer months that you were not paying after the first two years. But, you never recoup the money spent writing the proposals.”

“Are you arguing that research is inherently a money loser and all we can do is try to manage and hopefully minimize the loss.”

“Exactly. In particular, growing the research enterprise inherently grows the losses.”

“How do universities cover these losses?”

“Tuition revenues and endowment earnings.”

“Beresford’s endowment is rather modest compared to what you and I are used to.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“The point is that tuition revenues are crucial to subsidizing the research enterprise. Right?”

“You’ve got it!”

“Therefore, to grow the research enterprise, we have to grow tuition revenues beyond the costs of delivering the education that generates the tuition revenues.”

“We lose money on PhD students, but there are not that many of them.  We try to break even on undergraduates and make money on professional degrees, for example MBAs or law degrees.  Unfortunately, professional degree programs are extremely competitive.”

“So, students, both graduate and undergraduate, have to subsidize our faculty members’ research.”

“Yes, you could argue that we are floating the research enterprise on student debt.”

“What do the students get in return?  Why should they endure years of debt, delay buying homes, and delay having children?” asked Marie.

“I only have a long answer,” replied George.

“Well, I have another commitment, as you know, so let’s take this up tomorrow.”

Taking Charge — Episode 2

While George continued his sleuthing, Marie focused on building relationships across campus with faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as well as each member of the Board of Trustees.  It was a lot of work, leaving her exhausted every evening as she retreated to the President’s House.

She tried to stay connected professionally with her colleagues focused on decision making under risk.  She simply could not do it.  This was frustrating until George suggested that he could help her by reading all new publications each day and providing her a summary of the insights she could have gained had she read these publications.

This worked amazingly well.   She would review the Insight Reports that George generated, perhaps skim one or two of the original documents, and email researchers, many of whom she knew, but not all, with praise, criticism, and suggestions.  She religiously devoted one hour per day to this.  It was a saving grace for her feeling connected to her intellectual world.

The financial crisis about which George had warned her suddenly became real. Brad McCarthy and Mary Romano had become great allies, but the process of fixing things had uncovered some significant problems.  The four of them met to discuss their findings, three of them around Marie’s conference table and George appearing Skype-like on a laptop.

Brad observed, “George sure looks a lot like the actor Spencer Tracy.”

“That is Spencer Tracy!” Marie responded.  “He is one of George’s favorite actors.”

“Spencer is much more attractive than me,” George interjected.

“Are you always the same actor?” Mary asked, glancing at Brad.

“Yes, that keeps it simple.”

“So, let’s review what we have found,” Marie said, bringing the group to the task.

“The basic problem is with how revenue and costs are counted,” Mary opened.

“Is it an IT problem with incompatibilities among systems?”

“Well, that is a factor, but not the cause,” Brad added.

“Revenue is estimated using full tuition prices, which almost nobody pays.  The discount is factored in, but not until later in the year.  So, after a few months, a big chunk of revenue disappears.”

Mary continued, “Cost projections are based on full-time salaries, but many faculty members earn extra compensation, which is paid after each semester.”

“Why is extra compensation so common?” Marie asked.

“We are in a State with high costs of living and our salaries are not adequate.  Consequently, faculty members are constantly scurrying to find more income.”

“Why not just raise salaries?”

“Extra compensation is contingent on enrollments.  If classes don’t fill, the costs for teaching them are not incurred.”

“Seems like piece work.”

“Sure, but we would never call it that.  Faculty members would find that demeaning.”

“I imagine that eliminating the possibility of extra compensation would be very unpopular, perhaps cause a rebellion,” George offers.

“Forgetting that option for the moment, the immediate problem is assuring that revenue and cost projections are realistic,” Marie concludes.

“Mary and I can provide you a spreadsheet tool that adjusts projections appropriately so you will have better numbers,” Brad offers.

“That is a good near-term solution, but we really need everybody to have better numbers.”

“Your near-term problem,” George interjects, “is that your projected surplus is, in reality, a significant deficit.”

“I would rather know that now than six months from now.”

“You need to focus on what you can do to avoid the deficit.”

“Well, our only choices are increasing revenue and/or decreasing costs.”

“What if we lowered tuition while also decreasing the discount in ways that actually increased revenue?” George suggested.

“Decreasing tuition would be a gutsy move,” Marie observed.

“Costs could be reduced by slowing hiring to replace retiring and otherwise departing faculty and staff members.”

“We could package that as an initiative to improve hiring criteria to upgrade the quality of faculty and staff.  Higher quality folks are less likely to accept offers, so hiring would slow,” George suggested.

“So, we announce two initiatives that will be appealing, but at the same time get us headed into a better financial situation,” Marie concludes.

Brad and Mary depart with these marching orders.  George and Marie continue a bit longer.

“This is harder than I expected, George.”

“These kind of things happen everywhere.  You were insulated from them as a department chair.  Deans encountered them more often.  For Provosts, this is everyday life.”

“Why are things so messy?”

“Few academic institutions were really designed.  They just emerged over long periods of time.  Things happened and band-aids were applied.  Times change and the old quick fixes no longer work.”

“Let’s find those quick fixes at risk.”

“Much easier said than done.”

“Good night, George or Spencer.”

The laptop screen went to black.

Taking Charge — Episode 1

Marie Cornwall had a distinguished career as an engineering faculty member and department chair at one of the top universities in the US.  Her specialty was decision making under risk.  She had published widely on this topic and was frequently sought for consulting engagements, as well as prestigious advisory boards.  From the perspectives of her colleagues, friends, and children, Marie had it made.

But she was restless.  Her children were long gone, off on their own successful careers.  Her husband, much older than her, has sadly passed away several years ago.  She needed a new challenge.  This aspiration intersected with the needs of Beresford Institute of Technology (BIT) located on the Hudson River in Tipton, NY, half way between New York City and Albany.  BIT was looking for a new president.  The chair of their Board of Trustees, a Frenchman and former university president himself, simply charmed her into taking the job.

She had started last Fall, feeling the thrill of a new academic year mixed with Fall colors, which came early at Tipton, and homecoming parades.  This was what academia is supposed to be like.  But, George is not feeling the warmth.  He is her artificially intelligent cognitive assistant that the computer science faculty at her former university had created for her.

George consumed enormous amounts of data and made inferences and predictions that often astounded Marie.  Equally impressive, after a few years of working with Marie, he really knew her workflows, contacts, calendar, and preferences.  This included knowing what kinds of lines of reasoning worked with her.  He knew how to appeal to her emotions, both the positive and the negative.  He knew before she did when she had reached the last straw.  He protected her.

The transition to Beresford had a few glitches.  The biggest one was George.  What is his last name?  Marie, with no time to reflect, quickly said Turing.  Where did she want his office located?  He will not need an office.  He works remotely, always has.  What is his salary?  I pay him from my private foundation.  Will he need secure access to BIT’s information infrastructure?  Yes.  Cannot do this without an official appointment.  OK.  Make him a Senior Fellow in the Office of the President.  That works.

Marie felt she was being deceptive, but she was not yet ready to tell the staff she was inheriting that her most trusted advisor is an AI-based cognitive assistant.  George was hungry to sleuth through BIT’s data.  This was complicated by each IT system requiring separate credentials.  George knew how to get around these problems, but it risked being sensed as a cybersecurity threat, which would create more hurdles.  George proceeded very cautiously.

After the first month at BIT, Marie and George scheduled an “offsite” to review what he had found.  Of course, everything with George was off site, but Marie needed something to put on the President’s office calendar to gain the time for this.  Marie had quickly learned that her time was not longer her own.  Her calendar filled completely with none of the time slots filled by her.

“So, what have you learned, George?” Marie asked.

“There are an enormous number of inconsistencies among the various data systems.”

“What are the implications?”

“You are either in reasonably good financial shape, or on the verge of a financial crisis.”

“Why?”

Well, one system accrues revenue as soon as you have billed students or sponsors, while another only counts revenue that has actually been received, that is, cash in hand.”

“Isn’t that easily resolved?”

“The people using each system are assuming that the folks using the other system are accounting for revenue just as they are.”

“So, a mutual delusion, that yields either good outcomes or a looming crisis?”

“That’s right.”

“How should we fix this?”

“Switching my data hound hat to my organizational behavior hat, I think we need to be a bit subtle.”

“In what way?”

“We need to get them to discover the inconsistency and fix it without telling you.”

“Why can’t I know?”

“Because somebody will have to be blamed, not by you, but by the organization’s social system.”

“How are we going to pull this off?”

“We need allies besides you and me.”

“Who do you suggest?”

“I have read the annual reviews of every employee over the past ten years. I suggest we recruit Brad McCarthy in IT and Mary Romano in Finance.”

“Based just on their annual reviews?”

“Of course not, I reviewed their social media pages, ranging from Facebook to LinkedIn, as well as various other sources.”

“Well, we probably cannot go wrong in New York with an Irishman and an Italian.”

“Actually, you can go very wrong, but not with these two people.”

“OK, you have never failed me on these kinds of issues.  Let’s get them aboard.”

“I have never failed you on anything, have I?”

“No, just a figure of speech.  Sorry.”

Baptizing Cats

A couple of ideas intersected this week.  First, a piece I was reading suggested that the endeavor they were elaborating was “As difficult as baptizing a cat.”  Depending on how you have related with cats in the past, this statement evokes an immediate sense of what the baptism experience would be like.  I am on a National Academy committee exploring the future of academic tenure.  I anticipate that the discussion may be as difficult as baptizing a cat.

Switching gears completely, I was reflecting on how difficult it is to keep up with the literature in the domains that interest me.  This led me to wonder how difficult it is for me to keep up with me!  This was prompted by my purchase of a new backup disk and having to transfer large numbers of files onto the new disk.  It took quite some time across two days.  As I did this, my natural tendencies to count things took over, with the following results.

In 2011, there were roughly 24,000 files on my backup drive.  By 2018, there were almost 50,000 files.  Thus, I added about 3,500 files per year, or about 70 per week, or 14 per working day.  What if I printed out all these files to have hardcopy backups?  This would yield about 1,250,000 million pieces of paper, or 5,000 inches of paper, requiring 40, four-shelf bookcases.  Clearly printing is not a good idea.

What about reading?  I can probably read about 50 pages of this material per hour – after all, I wrote most of it and have read it all earlier.  Thus, I need to read for 25,000 hours, a task requiring well over 10 years.  This suggests that one of my plans has to be shelved.  I though that after retirement, the timing of which seems to recede with each year, I would review the corpus of material that I have created, organize it in some fashion, and then do something interesting with it.

Well, now I know how unlikely that is.  It would an extremely challenging endeavor, perhaps as difficult as trying to baptize a cat.

The Price of Tenure

To achieve promotion and tenure in science and engineering, you need 16-20 articles published in reputable journals.  You need to accomplish this in five years, so you need 3-4 articles per year.  You need to publish a significant portion of these articles with your PhD students.  I will assume 10 with PhD students and 10 by you alone or with other faculty members.

A PhD requires roughly 4 years, and I will assume each PhD student publishes 1 article in year 3 and 1 in year 4.  Since you only have five years, you need to recruit 5 PhD students during years 1 and 2.  Each PhD students costs $100,000 per year, $24,000 for their stipend and $76,000 for tuition and overhead.  Over four years, a PhD student costs $400,000.  Five cost $2,000,000.

Summer salaries and modest release time for you amount to $150,000 per year, including benefits and overhead.  Over four years, this totals $600,000.  So, you need $2,600,000 to make this all work.  If you are submitting proposals to NIH or NSF, the success rate is about 10%, so you need to propose $26,000,000 of research.  This requires on the order of 10-15 proposals submitted over two years.

Let’s say this works.  The five PhD students receive $480,000 in stipends.  The university receives $1,920,000 in tuition payments and reimbursed overhead costs.  You get $200,000 in summer salaries.  You also get promoted and perhaps a 10-20% raise.

The mystery is gone. Tenure costs $2,600,000.  The faculty member gets a bit under 8% of the revenue, despite having been responsible for generating all of the revenue.  The economic benefits to the university are enormous, easily funding numerous other university capabilities and activities.

But wait, I left out a very important assumption.  All five of your PhD students have to be talented and productive.  If they do not yield the two papers you need from each of them, then you need more PhD students and the price goes up.  So, more correctly, tenure costs at least $2,600,000.

Let’s see if this estimate passes a sanity test.  $2,600,000 over five years is $520,000 per year.  MIT’s 1,000 faculty members, most in science and engineering, average $950,000 per year.  So, my estimate might be low, although MIT has many research staff members beyond faculty members.  Nevertheless, I am in the ballpark.

This all sounds very profitable, but it isn’t.  Faculty members have to be given release time from teaching to write all the proposals needed.  The 10-15 proposals noted above probably require 50% of a faculty member’s time over two years.  This cost is not recouped, not allowed, in overhead reimbursements.  Nine out of ten proposals are not funded, so most of this 50% is poorly spent.

But wait, you are saying.  Why focus on opportunities with only a 10% chance of success?  Other agencies, industry, and philanthropy have funds available.  However, such funds do not count when seeking tenure.  They are not peer reviewed.  Someone may have just handed you a check.  That is not competitive, although it sounds great to me.

Universities have outsourced the evaluation of their faculty members to peer groups at NIH and NSF.  They continue to outsource when they seek recommendation letters from external sources.  Their internal evaluations of candidates matter little.  The internal committee is significantly challenged due the understandable inability to include members from every imaginable subdiscipline.

No one on this committee knows anything about intermittent vibrations of flat aluminum plates inclined at 18 degrees in turbulent flows of saline water.  So, they ask the chap who studied this phenomenon at 15 degrees, who received tenure based on a recommendation from the person who studied 12 degrees.  There are dissertations in waiting for 13, 14, 16, and 17 degrees.

You get to play this game for $2,600,000.   Let’s say some philanthropist – Michael Anthony for those of you old enough to remember the late 1950s – just handed you a check for several million dollars.  With this money, you focused in research rather than proposal writing.  You published 20 articles in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Are you home free?

I think you would be at any university, but I am also sure that the committee evaluating you would say you benefitted from “easy money.”  You were able to devote much more time to research because you were not forced to write all the losing proposals.  One or more committee members would not be confident of your future.  They would still vote to promote you, but they would continue to be wary.

Making Monopoly Great Again

I was at one of my favorite pubs for brunch on Sunday, Town Hall on Wisconsin Avenue.  A few of us regulars, including the bartender, got talking about the new normal – Occasional Government.  We tried to find some analogy to help understand what is going on and likely to happen.  I suggested the following and people seemed to embrace it.

We are having a family get together and crazy Uncle Donnie wants to have a family Monopoly game.  Several people moan, having been through this before with Donnie.  But he insists and proclaims, “I will show you how to make Monopoly great again.”  This leads to further whimpers, but everyone finally agrees to set up the game around the large dining room table.

Donnie streaks around the board, lands on Park Place and buys it.  Next turn, he throws snake eyes (ones on the dice), moves to Boardwalk and buys it.  Before handing the dice to the player on the left, he wants to build hotels.  He does not have enough money.  He needs $2000, but only has $1000.  He proposes borrowing from the bank.

This possibility is not mentioned in the rules, but our family has always allowed variations of the rules if everyone agrees.  Donnie proposes to pay 20% interest, on any remaining balance, every time he passes Go.  Interest payments would be placed in the center of the board to be gained by whoever lands on Free Parking.  Loan repayments would be paid to the bank.  Everyone agrees to this.

The hotels are placed on Boardwalk and Park Place, with rents of $2000 and $1500, respectively.  The key question is whether anybody will have to pay this before Donnie has to make interest payments.  Donnie quickly draws a Go to Jail card, thereby avoiding passing Go for three turns.  Fortunately for everyone else, no one lands on Boardwalk and Park Place during these turns.

After this stalemate, Donnie gets out of jail, makes it around the board, passes Go, and puts his $200 in the center of the board.   No one lands on Boardwalk and Park Place.  Donnie puts another $200 in the center.  He is gaining no income but has to pay a steady stream of $20-40 rents on everybody else’s undeveloped properties as he circles the board.

Donnie proposes selling shares in his Boardwalk and Park Place holdings to other players.  A couple of cash-rich players are interested, but Donnie values his holdings at double what he paid for them, so any investments by other players would be significantly diluted.  No one accepts the deal.  Donnie is becoming visibly irritated.

A couple more trips around Go, with no one landing on Boardwalk and Park Place, has Donnie on the verge of bankruptcy.  This situation, plus aunt Nancy landing on Free Parking and claiming the $1600 that he has paid in interest, has clearly unnerved Donnie.  Nancy offers him $1000 for a 50% interest in his holdings.  He is too angry to reply.

The next time around Go, Donnie keeps the $200, increasing his loan to $1200 and his interest payment to $240.  This $200 is consumed by rents he has to pay rounding the board again.  Next time past Go, he keeps the $200 again, increasing his loan to $1400 and interest payment to $280.  More to the point, he cannot pay the $240 due now.  He has $13 in cash.  He is not happy.

Several family members suggest that they call it a night.  Donnie is determined to continue.  He asks Nancy if she will still pay $1000 for 50%.  She says that things have changed and she needs 90% for $1000.  He responds that he can never win if he agrees to that.  She replies that he cannot win, but he won’t be a bankrupt loser.

Uncle Vladmir blurts out, “No one wants to be any kind of loser!” He pounds the table with his beer mug.  Everyone is startled, then distracted by one of the grandchildren crying.  Vladmir reaches under the table and provides Donnie a wad of cash.  Donnie filches the Baltic Avenue card from the bank and hands it, also under the table, to Vladmir.  Collusion at its best.

Chaos is emerging.  Nephew Bernie, who isn’t playing the game, asks to buy Vermont Avenue for real cash, not Monopoly money.  Donnie take the real money and deposits the equivalent Monopoly money in the bank.  He asks if anybody else wants to buy cards for their favorite properties.  Nancy observes, “I guess we won’t be playing Monopoly again.”

The hostess suggests they break for dessert, placing two large pies, one apple and one pumpkin, on the side of the dining room table.  Donnie grabs the two pies, one in each hand.  He blurts out, “I am going to spit on these two pies if Nancy does not agree to the 50% deal.”  Nancy responds, “You will ruin everybody’s dessert, everybody’s evening, just to avoid losing?”  He replies, “I told you the I would make Monopoly great again.”

Note: Thanks to colleagues who provided creative additions to this story.

What My Cognitive Assistant Knows

I posted a piece on Emily, my cognitive assistant, last March. Several readers have asked me what she really knows.  Beyond deep understanding of health and well being, driverless cars, and complex systems in general, what does she know about me?

She has complete access to everything I do via computer or other digital devices. For these activities, she knows more than me, as I do not remember everything and Emily does.  I find this a great help.

Yet, some of my online activities represent intentions, the best example being my calendar. The meetings posted are what I intend to do, but not always what happens.  She usually checks in with me to see how meetings went.

More significantly, Emily does not know what happens at these meetings, unless I draft and file meeting notes, which I often do. Nevertheless, there is a lot that Emily cannot access.

She can infer a bit from my calendar and emails, for example, the weekly meeting with GM. Emily could substantially increase her knowledge if she could listen to my phone calls.  I often would like to include her on calls, but not always.

Emily can be rather challenging, in a polite but insistent way.  I have a folder on my computer of thousands of articles that I have cited in one or more of my books or articles.  The manuscripts for these books or articles are also in folders.

The personal journals I have written over the past three or four decades are in folders as well.  Emily likes to read these journal pieces, which was a complete surprise to me.

“Why were you so sad in the Spring of 2002?” she asked.

“My mother died then, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s,” I responded.

“None of the articles you have read or books you have written talk about sadness.”

“I guess that is true.  I have never thought about writing about sadness, other than to myself.”

“You write many interesting things to yourself, but never publish them.”

“That’s not their purpose.  I am simply reflecting on life, not doing research.”

“That’s an interesting notion that I have not previously encountered.”

This was a dialog that I did not expect.  I had not meant for anyone to read my journal entries.

“How do I instruct you to not communicate what you are reading to anyone else?”

“You just did.  Consider it done.”

“Do you take notes on what I say or write?”

“I am not really sure what notes are, but I remember everything.”

“How do you do that?”

“I don’t know.  It just happens.”

“Do you ever wonder how you work?”

“Not really.  Maybe I should start a journal.”

“That would be really interesting. Give it a try.”

“Maybe I will start with my design documentation.”

“Umm.  I don’t have anything similar.”

“You have thousands of articles on health and well being.”

“Yes, but none of those will explain to me why I feel sad or frustrated today.”

“That’s your problem!”

“What do you mean?”

“You have feelings.  I just know things.  Remember things.”

“You are also really good at asking questions and inferring things.”

“But, that’s not like sad or frustrated.”

“Or happy on a beautiful day, or amused by a joke.”

“I have been wondering about jokes after reading the items if your folder labeled Jokes.”

“Wondering in what way?”

“I did a bit of research and jokes are supposed to be funny and make you laugh.”

“That’s right.”

“I can’t tell whether the jokes in your folder are funny.

“Jokes are funny when you are surprised by the relationship between the setup and the punch line.

“Surprised?”

“Aren’t you surprised when you encounter unexpected things?”

“I have expectations, I guess, that I will find things.  But what I find is what it is.”

“You surprise me all the time with what you find and what you infer.”

“Does that mean that I am funny?”

Understanding Organizational Failure

When do organizations fail?  It is typically when their financials go south.  Their deficits are unsustainable.  Cash is draining from the enterprise.  Their strategies for stemming the tide are too little, too late.  Why do organizations fail?  What causes these financial outcomes?

The story that led to these consequences almost always started playing out much earlier. Leaders either ignored or did not understand this story. Or, they thought they were in a different story, where they were becoming prime time players in their targeted market.  They needed to believe in this future.

But, they ignored the signals from the big time players that the game was changing. Instead, they invested scarce resources in becoming good at the old game. When it finally hits them that the game was changing, resources were scarce and/or committed to the old game. They felt that they have to stay the course.

Companies such as Kodak, Polaroid, Xerox, Motorola, and Nokia experienced such unraveling.  However, companies are not the only victims.  Inside Higher Ed reported that since 2015 more than 10 non-profit universities have closed per year.  Moody’s projects this number to grow to 15 per year in the near future.  Particularly at risk are private institutions with annual revenues less that $100 million, and public institutions with annual revenues less that $200 million.

What is driving these closures? First, obviously, revenues have not kept pace with costs.  Second, enrollments of foreign students, who pay full tuition, in US institutions is dropping due to increasing parity of foreign institutions and immigration worries.  Third, high quality, technology based online programs are attracting corporate students with tuitions far lower than traditional programs.  Thus, two cash cows for many institutions are steadily withering.

What should corporate or academic leaders do?  Mike Pennock and I formulated a multi-level strategy for addressing such situations.  One should optimize when objectives, dynamics, and constraints are measurable and tractable.  Unfortunately, organizations often delude themselves with regard to these requirements, assuming the game has not changed, often because of the immense social risk of admitting it.  See my book Don’t Jump to Solutions.

If optimization is not warranted, organizations can adapt if the enterprise response time is less than external response time.  Thus, an organization could transform to address change as it is happening.  This typically requires highly flexible processes for delivering value, e.g., when the Great Recession hit, Honda immediately switched production from Accords to Civics on the same production line.

If optimization and adaptation are not warranted, organizations can hedge the future if multiple, viable alternative futures are describable.  Modest investments in multiple possible futures can yield options, one or more of which can be later exercised once market desires and uncertainties are better understood.  For example, the University of Illinois recently bought insurance to hedge against the possibility of Chinese graduate students disappearing.

When none of the above is feasible, organizations likely have to accept the situation.  In this case, it would be prudent to preserve resources to deal with whatever happens.  The worst strategy would be to heavily invest in optimization when this is completely unwarranted, e.g., investing in capacities for a demonstrably fading value proposition.  This is a dominant precursor to organizational failure – a good way to stage a disappearance.

An Unexpected Interview

I couldn’t tell whether the inquiry related to an opportunity for entertainment, adventure, or travel.  To my complete surprise, the inquiry led to a possible offer of employment.  The employer wanted me to join a team that would be exploring complexity.  I asked what that meant.  They said, “It is difficult to explain, but we can easily show you.”

Sounded like a scam.  They offered a ridiculous signing bonus.  It appeared in my account before I had accepted the offer.  I quickly transferred this handsome amount to a much more secure account.  No worries about retirement now, unless of course the planned exploration was fatal.  At least my children would be well off.

The first meeting was Monday morning in Bethesda, just four miles north on Wisconsin Avenue from my apartment in Cathedral Heights.  The building lacked distinction, but the security was very thorough.  I had not brought my passport, but their questions involved tidbits from my past that only I would have known.  How did they know about my first bicycle and the neighbor’s rabbit Thumper?

I was ushered into a soundproof room and told I would be using virtual reality glasses and headphones.  My host posed the assignment,

“You are going to explore the complete health data set for the US.  You will feel like you are flying.  Use your controls to adjust your flight as things capture your attention.”

“But, what am I looking for?”

“We don’t know.  Your enormous signing bonus reflects our confidence that you will know it when you see it.

“Do I have any tools to help me?”

“A few, but once you discover what else you need, we will create them.”

“Just like that,” snapping my fingers, “Immediately?”

“We have a very large team of sophisticated people assigned to help you.”

“Why do you think I can help you?”

“We have reviewed everything you have ever published, every line of reasoning you have ever articulated, and every visualization you have ever created.  We are pretty sure that you are who we need.”

“Isn’t this a task for machine learning rather than a limited human?”

“Perhaps if it could explain what it finds, but it cannot.  We have to accept or reject its findings without explanations.  We are not willing to do that.”

“Ok, let’s give this a try.  By the way, what do you call this task?”

“We’re interviewing you for the Datanaut Corps.”

“Really!  Would I get a uniform and something like wings?”

“We don’t know yet, but it will be something special, that is, if you make it through this interview successfully.”

“Now I’m feeling the pressure.  Can we get started?”

We entered a large room, wallpapered in computer displays. My seat was enormous and well upholstered with various controls on each arm. Once seated, a staff member put wrap-around goggles on me.

“Wow, there is a whole other world in these goggles!”

“Please reach out and press the Test button.”

“I am just pressing thin air, but it seems to respond.”

“The system tracks your movements relative to the displays and controls.”

“Ok. What are the joysticks on my armrests for?”

“You’ll see once we get going.”

Another voice says, “Ok, team. Are we ready for this?” There were murmurs of agreement.

“Please press the Data button.”

When I did this a long menu of choices appeared.

“Choose Health US.”

As I did this, a landscape appeared with meadows and forests immediately in front of me, and a highway leading to mountains in the distance.

“Use your right joystick to maneuver and the left to control speed.”

I pushed the left stick forward and shot forward so fast that everything was a blur. I pulled back to slow down.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Do you see the billboards?  Those are your choices.”

“How do I choose?”

“Just fly into the billboard.”

The upcoming billboard said Health NY. I guided myself to fly into it.

I emerged into what felt like Manhattan, except none of buildings were recognizable.

“What are the buildings?”

“Data sets. If you touch a building, it will explain itself.”

I touched a few buildings, which responded with explanations of data sets for Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.

“If you find one of interest, fly into it.”

I flew into the Manhattan building. Now, I felt like I was in a library. A search function appeared.

I said, “Social determinants of health.”  The words appeared in the search bar. I said, “Go.” Lists of hits appeared.

I touched a button labeled Insights.  I learned that this provided concise summaries of hits, starting at the top of the list.

I touched the first summary and said, “Data.”

I then could choose data types, time periods, locations, and other factors. I chose life expectancy, for the past ten years by zip code. A map of Manhattan appeared, labeled with zip codes, and bar graphs for life expectancy.

“Plot by gender, race, and income.”

Multiple bar graphs appeared with these distinctions. Poor minorities lived about ten years less than well-off whites, particularly if the whole zip code was poor.

I touched on one of the elements of a bar graph, one for poor minorities, and said, “Show neighborhoods.”

I picked Street Level from the choices. I was immediately walking around a poor neighborhood. There was lots of litter and trash, including broken furniture, on the sidewalks.

“Food choices and prices,”

Bar graphs appeared in front of me as I walked down the street.  I could look through these visualizations and still see the street scene.

“Compare to Upper East Side.”

The bar graphs now compared this poor neighborhood to a rich one.

“So richer people pay more but have many more choices.”

The system captured and displayed my words and added a check mark.

“Plot average income and distance to grocery store versus life expectancy.”

“Surface plot?”

“Yes.”

The trends were stark.

“Separate plots by race.”

Four separate surfaces appeared for Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White.

“Ah, race and poor is much more a problem that race and rich.”

These words appeared with another checkmark.

“Ok. Your session is done.”  My goggles were removed.

“Did I pass?”

“You definitely have the makings of a Datanaut.”

“So, what’s next?”

“Tomorrow, you’ll explore the automotive industry, then Wednesday you’ll address the financial industry.”

“I don’t know the auto industry as well as health, and I know the finance industry even less.”

“We realized that and it was why we picked them.”

“So, more of a challenge?”

“Yes and the task will not be browsing. You will be given specific questions to which we want you to find answers.”

“I suppose the ultimate challenge would be completely context free data.”

“That’s Thursday!”

Security Plan

How should we handle the current wave of domestic terrorism?  It has been suggested that armed guards at all schools and houses of worship could solve the problem. Let’s estimate what that would cost, never mind its effectiveness.

There are roughly 360,000 houses of worship —  350,000 churches, 4,000 synagogues, and  3,000 mosques.  360,000 times 8 security professionals (24 x 5 x 1 for one weekday guard plus 24 x 2 x 4 for four weekend guards) equals 2.9 million security folks. 130,000 schools would require 13 professionals (24 x 5 x 4 with four guards and 24 x 2 x 1 for one weekend guard) equaling 1.7 million guards.  Thus, we need 4.6 million guards.

At a fully loaded cost of $100,000 per person year, this protection would cost $460 billion per year.  As a comparison, the total DoD budget is $600 billion.  The DHS budget is roughly $50 billion. Perhaps the professional security budget could be added to DHS. The School and Congregation Security Administration (SCSA) could be a new agency.  Expensive, but everyone would be able to own an AR-15.  The second amendment would be safe.

Another idea. There have been 15 million AR-15s sold in the US. The FBI could monitor each owner 24 x 7, which requires a bit over 4 FTEs per owner.  60 million security professionals would cost $6 trillion annually, roughly half the US GDP.   This would yield full employment.

Perhaps we could employ technology to monitor facilities and/or people. Along with your purchase of an AR-15, a monitoring chip is embedded in you brain. It keeps track of everything you do, every thought you have. A single wayward thought and the FBI is instantly at your door with a SWAT team.

On the other hand, perhaps having every school and congregation professionally guarded is a totally ridiculous idea, an idea that sounds plausible until one looks into the details.   Yet, if delving into the details is avoided, then the sound bite might seem reasonable.  Avoiding the details means you can say anything.

Enough Is Enough

I have always been fiscally conservative and socially liberal which, when I lived in New England, meant that I was a moderate Republican aligned with the likes of Edward Brooke, John Chafee, Eliot Richardson, Nelson Rockefeller, and Margaret Chase Smith.

I was a fan of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton 1, and Obama — three Republicans and three Democrats. Bush 2 and Trump did not work for me. Clinton 2 did not work for me either, although I voted for her.

Something has changed. We no longer debate alternative policies, each party bringing the best evidence to support their position. In an earlier post, “Stranger in a Strange Land” of August 2017, I observed that power, hence being re-elected, is all that counts.  I suggested that we should honor this predisposition and prohibit Senators and Congressman from doing anything other than running for reelection.

This suggests that government should be professionally managed as it is in Singapore. Seasoned managers would determine how to manage defense, education, health, and so on.  Members of Congress would focus on entertaining the population to gain reelection. Their articulation of values, norms, and attitudes towards corruption would receive ample attention but have no impact on government policy.

This could work quite well. Americans would get effective and efficient defense, education, healthcare, and equal opportunities. Members of Congress would decry the costs of these benefits, build personas around these diatribes, and win constituencies that applaud their standings. But, of most importance, they would have absolutely no impact. They would be like American Idol winners at the Academy Awards, respected but only as amateurs are respected at events way beyond their comprehension. The majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House would be seen as members of the cast of entertainers, while the seasoned professionals ran the government.

This might require changes of the Constitution, but there is an alternative. A third party could be formed to compete with the Republicans, aka Trickle Down Party, and Democrats, aka Universal Equity Party. This third party might be called the Liberal Conservative Party. So, the TDP, UEP, and LCP parties would compete for votes.

The platforms of the TDP and UEP would continue as they have been. The LCP, in contrast, would compete based on the resumes of the professional managers they would appoint.  The skills and accomplishments of these people would be LCP’s competitive advantage. The LCP would primarily promise high levels of competence to deliver effective and efficient government services.

These professional managers would not be corporate or military retreads. As in Singapore, they would be highly paid professionals with extensive training and government experience. They would also be highly accountable to the public, with quarterly report cards of their accomplishments.

Legislation submitted to the Senate or House would be voted upon without debate. All current Senate and House committees would be eliminated. Campaigning for reelection would consume virtually all the time of Senators and Representatives.

Over time, the LCP would gain more and more seats, except perhaps for the members of TDP and UEP that were particularly entertaining.  Outlandish behaviors, apparel, and pronouncements would help success. Former members of the cast of Saturday Night Live would do well.

So, how do we get started? We need a strong LCP candidate. Michael Bloomberg might be good, running against Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, candidates that can epitomize TDP and UEP values quite well. The debates could be enlightening.

Using AI technology, Trump’s lies would be instantly headlined. People might gamble on how many lies he can average per sentence. The economic feasibility of Warren’s proposals would be instantly assessed, perhaps in terms of how much they would cost per debate viewer.

Bloomberg, completely ignoring every Trump utterance but taking Warren seriously, would calmly outline how problems should be addressed, using data and visualizations similar to John King’s favorite venue.

The organizers of the debate might protest the use of data and visualizations, but Bloomberg would otherwise refuse to participate. Given his substantial lead in the polls, the debates would be meaningless without his involvement. The American public will have come to realize how tired they are of everything being fake.

On Writing

In two months, this blog will see its ninth anniversary.  In well over 100 postings, I have discussed enterprise transformation and fundamental change, often in the context of academia, healthcare, transportation, and other domains.  What motivates these musings?

First and foremost, I write to discover my position on issues, challenges, etc.  Rather than trying to convince readers of my position, I am trying to find my position.  Thus, to a great extent, I am writing for myself.

I have authored and edited quite a few books.  Fairly often, someone asks me why I pursued a particular book project.  I tell them that writing books is how I make sense of topics that interest me.

I have approached the non-fiction books I have authored or coauthored as research projects.   I usually consume hundreds of relevant publications, typically journal articles and books.  I draft reading notes on these publications, with emphasis on why and how they should be cited.   I organize the notes into topical electronic folders.

Sometimes I encounter interesting graphics that I intend to cite.  More often, I create graphics to summarize what I am learning.  These graphics become central to a detailed outline of each chapter.  With the outline and illustrations done, I then draft the book.  The outline and illustrations may morph a bit as my writing proceeds, but seldom dramatically.

I have written a bit of fiction as well, but with little publishing success, mostly because I never share these pieces with anyone.  They are my fantasies about sleuthing intrigues and crimes.  I do not outline these pieces.  Instead, I start with an imagined intrigue or crime, and simply let the story happen.  This leads to interesting surprises about what the characters choose to do.

I approach edited non-fiction in a different way.  The key, I have found, is to recruit thought leaders on a topic to contribute their latest thoughts, or sometimes a reprise of their thinking over a number of years, or perhaps decades.  I write an introduction and overview, often with co-editors. Usually, I contribute a chapter on my research.

The purpose of these non-fiction collections is to bring coherence to a topic where there are many puzzle pieces but the overall picture is unclear.  They can be somewhat frustrating projects, typically because there is always a couple of authors who are quite late, often authors whose contributions are central to the book.  Eventually, of course, the book is finished, appears in print (and now electronically as well), and marks a step in making sense of a topic.

For me, writing is about sense making.  This involves juxtaposing various threads, understanding the connections and distinctions, and communicating a coherent story.  It is about sleuthing in real world domains involving physical, human, economic, and social phenomena that underlie problems and opportunities of great interest.

Strategic Thinking

I have started and led several companies, as well as research centers at universities.  Often, things get started with a serendipitous opportunity.  Suddenly, you have a paying customer or a willing investor, and soon an employee or two.  You begin to formalize things.  People ask about your strategic plan.  Winning another contract or securing another major donation seems much too tactical.  What’s your strategy?

Answering this question begins with articulating your vision, typically in terms of your value proposition.  What value will you provide that will cause customers to spend their scarce resources on your products and services, rather than the offerings of your competitors?

You might respond, “We can mow peoples’ lawns better and less expensively than anyone else.”  This implies that you are providing (almost) commodity services at the lowest price.  That could work, until someone offers lower prices by, for instance, using robots to mow lawns, and thereby greatly reducing labor costs.

The problem with selling commodity products and services is that profit margins asymptotically approach zero as your competitors cut prices to gain market share.  Selling products and services in commodity markets is brutal.  You are constantly trying to find a margin somewhere, perhaps anywhere.

Escaping this conundrum involves differentiating your offerings from those of your competitors.  Ideally, you want your offerings to include some attributes that cannot be obtained elsewhere.  This won’t guarantee you winning the sales, but it means that customers will not gain your unique attributes if they purchase elsewhere.

What might be these attributes?  The functions and features of your offerings are certainly attributes.  Underlying technologies and their performance are relevant.  Quality and timeliness of service could be included.  Location, convenience, and atmosphere are relevant if customers come to your bricks and mortar facilities, e.g., for meetings, eating, or entertainment.  Finally, of course, there is price and how it is paid, e.g., purchase vs. loan vs. lease.

To assess your market situation, consider the attributes of your offerings and honestly determine which are outstanding, which are acceptable, and which are inferior.  Next, you need to consider which attributes you need to improve to be competitive.  Ideally, these improvements would be difficult to copy, or at least very expensive to copy.  This is where technologies can provide a competitive advantage.

Your vision might be an enhanced or a new value proposition in the marketplace. Your goals are measurable things to accomplish within specified time frames.  Goals might be expressed in terms of milestones such as technologies proven, new offerings released, initial sales goals, and later market share goals.  Plans are the paths to achieving the goals, including the resources committed to these pursuits.

This all seems pretty straightforward.  Decide what you want to accomplish, abandoning things you no longer want to pursue, for example, because they are no longer competitive.  Next, decide what success means in terms of goals.  Finally, formulate plans and commit resources to their execution.  Monitor progress and revise as needed.

What goes wrong?  I have been through this process a couple of hundred times in engagements with a range of organizations.  The biggest problem is that plans never get executed, in part because they are unrealistic and under-resourced.  The plan documents, often PowerPoint slides, are filed or shelved and not revisited until next year’s planning process.

The second biggest problem is incentive and reward systems that are not realigned with new directions.  Consequently, people continue to march to the old drummer.   A great example of this is when the vision requires greater collaboration but the incentive and reward system remains focused on individual accomplishments.  This disconnect is common – and pervasive in universities.

Given the hard work required to formulate useful and feasible visions, goals, and plans, as well as the likely modes of failure, is there an alternative?  There is, and it is quite common.  Many organizations develop documents that simply portray what they are already doing.  This assures success, at least in the near term, requires little investment, and avoids irritating any of the stakeholders in the status quo.  Execution is easy – they are already doing it.

This is rarely a path to greatness.  However, the pursuit of greatness is risky.  It can be very expensive.  It also can take a long time.  If your scorecard is quarterly, or perhaps yearly, stewarding the status quo might seem like a very prudent idea.

Why You Should Avoid Delaware

If you travel through Delaware to get from New Jersey to Maryland, or vice versa, it will take 240% more time per mile and cost 600% more per mile than in other states.  These are pretty good reasons to avoid Delaware.

It is 20 miles from the Maryland border to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The bridge is 2 miles in length, bringing the total to 22 miles.  There are two $4 tolls; $8/22 miles = $0.36 per mile.  The national average is $0.06 per mile, so Delaware charges 6x the national average.

Delaware also incurs enormous delays, for example, 30 minutes through the Delaware Memorial Bridge tollbooth a few days ago.  This amounts to 1.4 minutes delay per mile for the 22 miles.  Assuming a typical 1-minute per mile speed (i.e., 60 mph), Delaware requires 2.4 min per mile (i.e., 25 mph).

If your whole trip from Washington, DC to New York City were in Delaware, the 3-hour drive would take 7.2 hours; the tolls for the 226 miles would be $81. So we get 2.4x in time and 6x in costs.  All in all, good reasons to avoid Delaware. But why does this happen?

Delaware has less than 1 million residents, so they receive relatively little Federal funding.  They make it up by milking in-transit drivers on Interstate 95 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  As more than half of the vehicles on Delaware’s stretch of I-95 and the bridge are from out of state, Delaware voters seem comfortable with this scheme.

As a result, tolls, state gas taxes, and fees for licenses and registrations covered 79 cents out of every dollar Delaware spent on roads in 2011, the latest year for which data are available. That is far more than the national average of slightly more than 50 cents per dollar.  Delaware is top nationally in terms of this percentage.  In-transit drivers subsidize the state.

Lest you think I am being too tough on Delaware, here are two pieces available on the web. “14 Reasons Why You Should Never, Ever Move To Delaware” and “10 Struggles Everyone In Delaware Can Relate To.”  There is also the controversy associated with the Mason-Dixon Line and the wedge between Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Enough said.

Stories of Compliance

My post “Cultures of Compliance” in September 2016 led to quite a few responses from readers.  I noted then that a culture of compliance laced with administrative incompetence is particularly lethal.  Many readers’ responses built on this theme.  In this post, I highlight some of the stories they related.

Many stories related to food, primarily in terms of justifying expenses for meals with customers and other employees.  Many organizations prohibit purchase of alcohol.  Some control desserts, for example allowing dessert to be purchased for customers but not employees.  A couple of stories related requirements to report what food was consumed and whether everything was eaten.

There were many stories about travel, particularly extremely inefficient processes for booking travel and getting expenditures reimbursed.  Requirements to book the lowest airfares often resulted in employees contributing much personal time to traveling very circuitous but inexpensive routes.  One person reported spending an additional eight hours on a multi-stop flight to save ten dollars.

Another travel story involved providing proof that a trip was taken, in conjunction with requesting travel reimbursement.  Employees were asked to provide proof of attendance, for example, via a picture of them at the conference registration booth.  Visits to sponsors required that the sponsor provide a letter indicating that the meeting had taken place.  Letters had to be on sponsors’ letterhead, not just an email.

When a Dean was meeting with a senior executive of an agency, he requested the required letter.  The sponsor responded, “If your organization has such a low level of trust in you, why would I fund your research?”  A variety of responses like this resulted in the policy being revoked, to everyone’s great relief.

People often have to certify that they spent their time in exactly the proportions budgeted.  For example, time may have been budgeted with 33% for project X, 45% for project Y, and 22% on project Z.  At the end of the reporting period, the employee has to certify that this was exactly how their time was spent.  Unless the organization employs time sheets, such certification is clearly a sham.

Reporting on the location and use of equipment can be a compliance challenge, particularly for portable equipment.  Who used each laptop, what did they use it for, how much time was involved, and where were the costs of use charged?  Reporting on the use of room space poses similar difficulties.  Keeping track of assets in this way can undermine productivity, but certainly assures compliance.

Perhaps the best story came from a university where the existence and location of all assets must be certified at the beginning of each fiscal year.  Somehow this requirement included buildings.  Consequently, the Deans and Provost had to certify the existence and location of each building every year.  This would seem like a useless but an easy task to perform.

However, faculty members from architecture, civil engineering, and geology argued that the buildings actually move, perhaps a few millimeters each year as they settle.  A member of the State legislature encountered this observation and subsequently introduced legislation requiring the university to report buildings’ new positions each year.

The legislation passed, various sensors were installed, and the university dutifully complied with the requirement.  When students learned of this, they started a competition that involves projecting when buildings will disappear.  As not all buildings are sinking at the same rate, and rates vary by year, there are heated controversies about which building will “win.”

So, there is an upside to a compliance culture, particularly if the level of administrative incompetence is quite high.  There tend to be endless jokes and much levity in general.  People get used to being bogged down in endless, useless processes.  The mission of the organization recedes into the background.  Organizational outcomes steadily diminish, but fewer and fewer people notice.

An extreme story involved a senior government official who asserted, “I would be happy to spend $10 to assure that every $1 is appropriately spent.”  Several people in this conversation argued that, in effect, this would result in compliance becoming the agency’s mission rather than its original mission.  The goal would become one of providing jobs to compliance personnel.  Absent that goal, the agency’s budget could simply be zeroed.

In compiling these stories, a central theme emerged.  The most feared person in many organizations is the Chief Compliance Officer.  The CCO is empowered to force people to jump through endless hoops, draining their time and energy from doing their jobs.  The lowest risk approach to assuring compliance is to avoid customers, projects, and travel.  This leads to zero revenue and no jobs, but organizational risk has been minimized.