Dealing With Debt Limit

The answer is straightforward.  Postpone Social Security payments, Medicare payments, military payrolls, farm subsidies, and Congressional payrolls.  A large portion of the US population will see substantial losses of incomes and significantly increased personal liabilities.  Many millions of people will be impoverished.  They will just have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps as Republicans have always done.  

The Republicans will win.  The economy and society will be destroyed and the Republican House of Representatives will cheer.  The beast has been tamed and the swamp drained.  The government has been neutered.  McCarthy, Greene, Boebert, and Gaetz will have their slogans for the next campaigns, “We destroyed your lives, just as you wanted when you voted for us.  More to come!”

Does it make sense to let the Republicans win?  We could save money more easily by targeting CA (McCarthy), GA (Greene), CO (Boebert), and FL (Gaetz).  Just postpone Social Security payments, Medicare payments, military payrolls, farm subsidies, and Congressional payrolls for these states.  Legal action would surely result, but we know how to drag this out for years. 

There is a compelling alternative.  A negotiation among adults can work, perhaps including McCarthy, but not the adolescents Greene, Boebert, and Gaetz.  These three will get cookies and ice cream in the nursery, and perhaps a Disney movie, while Congress actually works to mitigate the conflict.  These three will also get participation trophies to show to their constituents in the next round of elections.

This will not be a Democratic victory.  It will simply be Democrats and Republicans working across their aisles to make government work.  The Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc. were not designed to encourage stalemates.  These guiding documents were not intended to enable one political faction to destroy the economy and society.  Principles are important, but they should not destroy the ability to practice governance.

A Living Wage

In November, Washington DC voters approved a measure to make the minimum hourly wage for tipped restaurant workers incrementally increase to $15.20 per hour by 2027. Tips will be on top of that wage, and owned by the tipped worker not their employers. 

DC restaurants may add a service charge to provide the resources to comply. When combined with DC’s 10% sales tax, prices may increase to the extent that diners gravitate to MD and VA restaurants. For example, consumers may balk at $25 beers.

What does this scheme replace?  DC restaurant owners paid tipped workers $5 per hour plus tips. If the total, with tips, did not amount to $15 per hour, the owners had to make up the difference. GA and VA are similar except the base rate is $2 per hour.

So a very large portion of tipped workers’ wages depend on the generosity of customers. A typical 20% tip on a $50 meal yields $10 which may go to the server in total, or be shared among members of the server staff.   A living wage depends on the volume of generous customers.

An informal survey of waiters and especially bartenders has suggested a very good income is earned by attentive, gregarious staff members. Most consumers reward really high quality service, often beyond the nominal 20%.

If the wait staff is not attentive or particularly gregarious, the 20% may become 10%, or even zero. Thus, people’s incomes can strongly depend on more than just taking orders and delivering food. The attentive and gregarious folks do well. The others find customers very tight fisted.

This suggests that the incomes of tipped workers very much depends on workers’ personalities. Introverts may find it difficult to earn a living wage, at least in this profession. That may seem unfair, but I expect such challenges are pervasive beyond tipped restaurant workers.

Limits of Patience

Should we meet on Google, Teams or Zoom?  Do you have access to a Google drive, or Box, or the Cloud?  Are you on Windows or Mac?  Which version of Windows or the Mac OS?  Which version of Chrome, Explorer or Safari are you using? 

These questions are akin to asking me which cell phone towers am I currently using in my neighborhood.  What is the source of the electrons flowing through my electrical outlets at the moment?  Why do I need to know answers to all these questions?

It is all about competition.  Every provider needs equal opportunities to meet your needs. Every vendor at the farmers’ market needs equal opportunities to sell you tomatoes, green beans, or zucchini.  This requires that you understand differences among vendors, how they plant and cultivate their crops.

Alternatively, I head to the grocery store to buy the Amy’s Bowl of tomatoes, green beans, and zucchini, with pasta and pesto.  Cooking only requires four minutes in the microwave and only taxes my diet with 300 calories.  Amy does not even require that I know the make of the microwave.

There is a wide range of things I do not want to know, things with which I have limited patience.  Idiosyncratic interfaces in automobiles, appliances, and televisions are great examples where meaningless variety is frustrating.  Getting into a rental car and not being able to figure out how to turn off the radio is a great example.  Not being able to change TV channels in a hotel room is another.

Ideally, I would be able to use my iPhone to do everything from rental cars to hotels, to medical appointments and retail shopping.  I like the idea of one user interface that I know how to operate.  Others will argue that this will limit competition and innovation, but it also means that millions of people will not be spending considerable time trying to figure out somebody’s bright idea.

Thoughtlessness

There seems to be an epidemic of thoughtlessness.  You help a young person to apply for a prestigious opportunity.  They get accepted.  You hear through the grapevine.  You mention to their grandmother, who prompted your efforts, that you had not heard from the young person.  She tells you, “She is too busy to email you.”

You are talking with seeming friends.  They repeatedly turn away to answer cell phone calls on one matter or another.  The tracks of your conversations are completely lost.  Their only response is to tell you about their phone calls; the context and particulars are not meaningful to you.

You are an elderly person, standing at a street corner waiting for the light to change and the walk sign.  There is a high end SUV waiting to turn right when the light changes.  They are focused to the left, waiting for the light to change.  At that moment, they surge to the right.  Your vigilance is all that keeps you from being hit.

You are patiently waiting in the remaining two lanes on the highway, the third lane closed for construction.  Everyone is enduring this funneling.  A car streaks down the empty third lane.  Just before the barrier they pull into the small space between two cars in the adjacent lane, with the driver of the behind car reluctantly letting them in. 

People are focused on their goals – what they want.  Everyone else is in the way.  They are impatient to meet their own needs.  Everyone else’s needs are in the way of what they want.  They quickly proceed, perhaps to achieve a meaningless life, albeit one unimpeded by any sense of reflection.  Hopefully, no one is injured in the process.

Persistence & Patience With Change

How can we get people to understand societal changes that are desirable and achievable if they embrace and support such pursuits?  More specifically, how can we energize support for transformation of health, education, and energy ecosystems to achieve desirable, high priority outcomes?  Consider related achievements in similar arenas in the past. 

Abolitionism, or the abolitionist movement (1830-1870), was the crusade to end slavery. In Western Europe and the Americas, abolitionism was a historic movement that sought to end the Atlantic slave trade and liberate the enslaved people.  William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts founded the newspaper The Liberator and in the following year he set up the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He was joined with Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York in forming the American Anti-Slavery Society.  President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  Over three decades had passed.

The women’s suffrage movement (1848-1917) was a decades-long fight to win the right to vote for women in the United States. It took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right, and the campaign was not easy: Disagreements over strategy threatened to cripple the movement more than once.  The three founders of America’s women’s suffrage movement were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott.  The 19th Amendment makes it illegal to deny the right to vote to any citizen based on their sex, which effectively granted women the right to vote. It was first introduced to Congress in 1878 and was finally certified 42 years later in 1920.  Over seven decades had passed.

The Progressive movement (1897-1920) was a political movement interested in furthering social and political reform, curbing political corruption caused by political machines, and limiting the political influence of large corporations.  The progressive movement had four major goals: (1) to protect social welfare, (2) to promote moral improvement, (3) to create economic reform, and (4) to foster efficiency. Reformers tried to promote social welfare by easing the problems of city life. 

Progressive national political leaders included Republicans Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, and Charles Evans Hughes; Democrats William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Al Smith.  Aside from banning the practices of price discrimination and anti-competitive mergers, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act also declared strikes, boycotts, and labor unions legal under federal law. The bill passed the House with an overwhelming majority on June 5, 1914. President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law on October 15, 1914.  Almost two decades had passed.

The civil rights movement was a political movement and campaign (1875-1968) in the United States to abolish institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement throughout the United States.  The civil rights movement was a struggle for justice and equality for African Americans led by James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.  Nine decades had passed. Yet, one can argue that this movement is still a work in progress. 

Social movements take decades to secure the outcomes sought.  One can argue that this is “a failure to fully integrate agency and structure in explanations of social movements. A focus on great leaders risks neglect of structural opportunities and obstacles to collective action, while an emphasis on structures of opportunity risks slighting human agency.”  In other words, structures must be amenable to change, people must perceive agency to make changes, and leaders are needed to strategize, organize, and execute.  As illustrated above, people must also be persistent and patient.

Lifeline to Existence

Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Basic Books, 2006) provides the following chronicle of John Howland’s voyage (pp. 32-33).

“In the Fall of 1620, the Mayflower’s ability to steady herself in a gale produced a most deceptive tranquility for a young indentured servant name John Howland. As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless below. He saw no reason why he could not venture out of the fetid depths of the ‘tween decks for just a moment.  After more than a month as a passenger ship, the Mayflower was no longer a sweet ship, and Howland wanted some air.  So he climbed a ladder to one of the hatches and stepped onto the desk.

Howland was from the inland town of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, and he quickly discovered that the deck of a tempest-tossed ship was no place for a landsman.  Even if the ship had found her own still point, the gale continued to rage with astonishing violence around her.  The shriek of the wind through the rope rigging was terrifying, as was the sight of all those towering, spume-flecked waves.  The Mayflower lurched suddenly to leeward.  Howland staggered to the ship’s rail and tumbled into the sea.

This should have been the end of him.  But dangling over the side and trailing behind the ship was the topsail halyard, the rope used to raise and lower the upper sail.  Howland was in his midtwenties and strong, and when his hand found the halyard, he gripped the rope with such feral desperation that even though he was pulled down more than ten feet below the ocean’s surface, he never let go.  Several sailors took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in, finally snagging him with a boat hook and dragging him back onto to deck.

When William Bradford wrote about this incident more than a decade later, John Howland was not only alive and well, but he and his wife Elizabeth, were on their way to raising ten children, who would, in turn, produce an astounding eighty-eight grandchildren.  A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason.”

Eleven generations later, I was born in 1947 in Fall River, MA.  If it had not been for that rope trailing the Mayflower, I never would have existed.

Experience vs Evidence

A critical issue arises.  We convene an august group of experts to address the issue and recommend ways forward.  The expert panel recommends courses of action.  Those empowered to act embrace one or more recommendations.  They endorse and resource ways forward.

Does this work?  Sometimes experiences can preempt needs for evidence.  Vietnam, Gulf War, Opioids, Covid, and Climate Change provide compelling examples of where expert opinion has been ill-informed and often outright wrong.  We need agreed upon empirical evidence upon which to base our decisions.

A classic counterpoint is Haskins and Margolis in Show Me the Evidence (Brookings, 2014).  In conflict with their original intentions, they illustrate the impacts and strengths of an evidence-based approach.  The prestige and seniority of someone’s position provides credibility to positions that are not necessarily empirically sound.

My colleague Gary Klein has provided important findings on the value of intuitions of experts, especially when the time frame for acting is short.  However, these findings only hold when the new situation is comparable to situations for which people are expert.  Otherwise, the delusion of the ubiquity of expertise emerges.

People who may be expert in chemical physics often seem only too willing to pontificate about social science.  In fact, they seem willing to pontificate about anything.  Anyone who has won a Nobel Prize or a Super Bowl seems to be expert at everything.  We are all too willing to accept the prognostications of one who has accomplished anything.

I am not arguing against the value of experience.  Important and valid insights often emerge from immersive experiences.  Yet, having been in a position of authority does not imbue anyone with expertise on everything.  In fact, I am most impressed with people who, having been in such positions, now know how to marshal evidence to support their positions.  Such people are invaluable.

Misinformation and Disinformation

We have of late experienced an accelerating infodemic of misinformation and disinformation.  The former relates to erroneous information that is forwarded without the sender realizing it is erroneous.  The latter concerns information that is intended to deceive.  In this post, I highlight a reading list of a dozen sources that, in effect, provide a short course on the topic.

What are the sources of the problem?  Human psychology (Grimes, 2019; Kahneman, 2011; Rosling, 2018) and sociology (Rose, 2022) underlie our tendencies to consume and accept deception.  Social media (Klein, 2020) has greatly exacerbated these inherent human proclivities.

Social media has increasingly become “weaponized” (Singer & Brooking, 2018; Zegart, 2022) by social, political, and military adversaries.  Media balance practices (Grimes, 2019) that attempt to report all points of view, even those blatantly incorrect, provides a ready audience for misinformation and disinformation.  The 1st Amendment of the US Constitution (Rosenberg, 2021) explicitly supports rights to lie.

How might we approach solutions of this problem?  Digital equity (Khanna, 2022) can provide a foundation, whereby everyone has access to state of the art digital capabilities.  Education focused on critical thinking (Grimes, 2019) and fostering mental immunity (Norman, 2021) needs much greater attention and investment.  There are also technology solutions (Espinosa, 2021; Kearns & Roth, 2019; Zegart, 2022).

We understand the problem and how to address it.  However, we need means to overcome the market and political forces that are benefitting from this situation.  Those who argue that the marketplace and society will self-correct for these extremes are either hopelessly naïve or among those profiting from the infodemic.

Key References

Espinosa, C. (2021). The Smartest Person in the Room: The Root Cause and New Solutions for Cybersecurity. Carson City, NV: Lioncrest Publishing.

Grimes, D.R. (2019). Good Thinking. Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World. New York: The Experiment.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kearns, M., & Roth, A. (2019). The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Khanna, R. (2022). Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Klein, E. (2020). Why We Are Polarized. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Norman, A. (2021). Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. New York: Harper.

Rose, T. (2022). Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions. New York: Hachette.

Rosenberg, I. (2021). The Fight for Free Speech: Ten Cases that Define Our First Amendment Freedoms. New York: New York University Press.

Rosling, H. (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We Are Wrong About the World — And Why Things are Better Than You Think.  New York: Flatiron Books.

Singer, P.W., & Brooking, E.T. (2018). Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Zegart, A.B. (2022).  Spies, Lies & Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Blog Anniversary

My first posting on Rouse on Transformation was on November 5th, 2009 – more than 13 years ago.  I am now a bit under one month into my 14th year.  Last Monday was my 300th post, roughly once every two weeks, although the pandemic has given me time and motivation to post weekly – every Monday.

With the 300th post, I have generated 426 single spaced pages, with 184,000 words, enough for a book of over 700 pages.  Rouse on Transformation is syndicated to 250,000 readers, and has received over 50,000 comments, or over 300 per month and growing.  I have only digested a small subset of this corpus, but readers seem to very much relate to my posts.

I have covered a wide range of topics, with emphasis on enterprise transformation, including many case studies of successes and failures.  Lately, I have been paying substantial attention to societal transformation, particularly health, education and energy.  Next week, I will begin consideration of misinformation and disinformation, particularly as exacerbated by social media. 

I currently feel a mix of optimism and pessimism.  I am optimistic that we understand how we should transform society to achieve desirable outcomes for everyone.  I am pessimistic in terms of the likelihood we will commit to such transformation.  There are too many vested interests – often termed rice bowls – threatened by such changes.

Lately, I have been thinking in terms of 10-20 year strategies for slowly but surely enabling the needed changes.  We need to package incremental elements of the overall plan in terms of easily digestible, intuitively appealing early wins.  My coming blog posts will explore what this might mean and how it can happen.

Value Destruction

Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, now Meta, and Elon Musk at Twitter are in the process of destroying the value created by their formerly immensely successful enterprises.  A recent Economist (November 3rd) outlines their misadventures, arguing that their conglomerative aspirations have set the stage for overreach.  Zuckerberg is trying to move beyond the original vision, while Musk seems to think he can reengineer the vision.

Value destruction is not a new game.  Kodak, Polaroid, Digital, Xerox, Motorola, and Nokia provide a wealth of examples of how to undermine successful platforms as chronicled in my book Failure Management (Oxford, 2021).  They tried to milk their original value propositions too long.  In many cases, they had invented the technologies needed for a new value proposition, but they did not want to cannibalize existing sales.  Their competitors did not hesitate.

Allan Sloan in the Washington Post (November 23, 2021) reports on “IBM, Toshiba, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric having announced plans to unwind, hoping their separate pieces would be worth more than an undivided company. But there is no way to tell if such breakups will turn out well for shareholders.”  GE has to be the gold standard for conglomerate failures.

“Under the 20-year regime of the late Jack Welch, GE grew chaotically, becoming a giant industrial company, a giant financial company and a pretty big media company. Welch preached the virtues of centralized control and centralized finance — the opposite of today’s breakup approach.  GE was the most highly-valued company in America for a good part of the 1990s, and people flocked to study its financial and management techniques.  Welch was regarded as a genius for assembling a huge group of unrelated businesses and hitting his earnings targets almost every quarter. Fortune magazine named him manager of the century in 1999.”

The Economist (August 1, 2020) highlights a book by two Wall Street Journalreporters, Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann, Lights Out (Mariner, 2021).  “They seek to find out what went awry. It twists and turns through almost 40 years of GE’s modern history in a way that is at times as bewildering as the conglomerate itself. But the thread that runs through consistently enough to prevent motion sickness comes from a phrase John Flannery used shortly before taking over from Jeff Immelt in 2017: “No more success theatre.” For decades GE managers had an over-exalted sense of their own abilities, which led to narcissism, hubris and the bending, if not breaking, of accounting rules to hit their profit targets. This eclipsed any strategic vision they may have had.”

I have found two particular phenomena that often underlie such outcomes.  First, companies often lose track of where they are.  Their strategic situation assessment is wrong.  Consequently, their strategies and plans are for a company and market that no longer exists.  I elaborate this phenomenon in Start Where You Are: Matching Your Strategy to Your Marketplace (Jossey-Bass, 1996).

The second and related phenomenon concerns 13 common delusions that undermine the validity of strategies and plans.  Companies often assume, sometimes unconsciously, that their path to past successes is a valid way forward.  This delusion is typically fostered by leaders who see themselves as stewards of the status quo.  I elaborate the set of delusions in Don’t Jump to Solutions: Thirteen Delusions That Undermine Strategic Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 1998).

Consequently, the average lifespan of companies in the Fortune 500 is steadily decreasing.  Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction portends once-successful companies disappearing once their value proposition becomes obsolete.  They often invest enormous amounts of money trying to hold off the future.  Eventually, they disappear, having successfully destroyed the value they once created.

Service Hall of Shame — Delta Air Lines

I have flown well over 3 million miles with Delta, retaining Sky Priority status when my Platinum and Diamond credentials aged out. I supposedly still receive exemplary service.

I recently flew from my home in Washington, DC to Orlando for a business meeting. I sat in 30E to Atlanta, then 32B to Orlando, and 35F on the return. About the worst seats you can get for $760. Delays on each of the three flights were an hour or so.

Gate agents for all three flights, especially Peter in Orlando, were not at all interested in my questions or concerns.  For the last flight, I attribute the chilly belligerence to hordes of massive strollers, some double deckers, with children clutching large stuffed animals.

Why can Delta charge premium prices for clearly inferior service? I think it is because we put up with it. We even bail them out financially when they encounter rough spots, as they did during the pandemic.  They apparently feel their livelihoods are entitled.

We could be much more proactive, boycotting American, Delta, and United until they lower prices and improve service. Of course, the government might continue to pay salaries for those not working.  They might nationalize the airlines to assure continued service.

At an extreme, people could protest by minimizing consumption of everything. The government might respond with incentives such as tax holidays.  This might lead to lawsuits that would make their way to the Supreme Court over a several years.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but it begs the question of who is in charge. Do market consumers determine priorities, as well as demand and receive good service?  Or, does corporate America orient their priorities around controlling costs to maximize revenues, profits, and executive bonuses?  Who is serving who?

Corporate priorities cause us to have the highest OECD costs of healthcare and education, combined with poorest performance. People are making lots of money while patients and students suffer. Delta’s enormous profits and executive bonuses are their dominant objectives, not satisfied customers, despite their kind words on this.

I hasten to note that I have offered many blog posts over the years on the airline industry, none of them complimentary. I am old enough to remember when air travel was a pleasure.  Now, they deserve a whole wing of the Service Hall of Shame.

Uneven Excellence

We often compare ourselves to the other 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The US spends the most per capita on healthcare, but achieves much poorer outcomes than most OECD countries.  The US is among the largest spenders on education in terms of costs per student.  Yet, the US achieves much poorer educational outcomes than most OECD countries.  How can we perform so poorly?

We have excellent health systems, e.g., Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser-Permanente, Mayo Clinic, and we have excellent educational institutions, e.g., MIT, Princeton, Stanford.  We know how to deliver health and education very well.  The problem is that this excellence is not available to everybody.  The evidence for this is rather compelling.  For example, here is data from Washington, DC.

Victor Horton reported in the Washington Post (October 26) “Life expectancy in many Ward 7 and 8 communities is 20 to 25 years below those in Ward 2 and 3 communities. Median household income in Ward 8 sits around $38,000 while it’s nearly 3 ½ times higher in Ward 3 at $130,000 — a $92,000 difference.”  I live in Ward 3, so these statistics are compelling.

A rather amazing finding is that your Zip Code is a better predictor of your health and educational attainment than your genetic code.  Where you live is an indicator of your financial well being in terms of the value of your home that determines your property taxes, which establishes school budgets and the K-12 curriculum provided.  If you live in a poor area, schools tend not to offer, for example, the courses needed to be “STEM ready” for college.

Jay Mathews in “Downtrodden parts of Texas lead nation in challenging high school students,” Washington Post, May 26, 2017, reports on the IDEA network of charter schools. IDEA provides an example of the most ambitious schools in low-income areas, in this case the Rio Grande Valley. The portion of children from low-income families in IDEA schools is usually 80 percent or more.  Every student must take 11 Advanced Placement courses and tests to graduate.  IDEA schools are among the top 10 in The Washington Post’s list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools.

Thus, we do know what to do and can be really good at doing it.  However it does seem that often we are not up to the task.  Spending more than other OECD countries should result in the highest rankings in health and education.  Such accomplishments will require committing to excellence for everyone.  This would certainly be a “stretch goal” for the United States.

The Crossroads of Social Determinants

According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, “Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”  Thus, there is a spectrum of attributes that characterize SDOH, and people vary greatly along these attributes.

How might one meet people embodying this range of variations?  My experience has been that people in waiting rooms in urban urgent care and emergency departments within the US healthcare ecosystem provide a panorama of insights into SDOH.  Personal and professional experiences in these types of organizations have provided a wealth of insights.

I have experienced these organizations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Hoboken, Newark, and Washington.  Some instances were due to personal falls and injuries.  Others were related to research studies of the operations of these organizations.  In all cases, unlike most of the rest of the healthcare system, the patients arrived with a variety of maladies that were completely unscheduled.  Consequently, some form of triage began up front.

While waiting, I had the opportunity to observe the population also waiting.  Many people were obviously rather poor, with ill-fitting clothing.  A surprising number wore bedroom slippers, even though the weather was cold.  Quite a few talked to themselves, a bit too loudly.  Some of these people walked around as they talked.

Many were quite friendly, although I often could not understand what they were saying.  I remember an older woman going to the snack vending machine and buying cookies for an unhappy child, even though she was not at all related to the child.  Everyone tended to make sure that all people had seats, shifting around to create space.

The staff, in one place where I interviewed care workers, referred to some patients as “frequent fliers.”  They would repeatedly appear in the emergency department, often seeking pain medicine.  One patient in Baltimore had shown up 200 times in two years.  When I asked why, the care worker said, “He doesn’t know what else to do.”

Interviewing nurses and social workers, they told me substance abuse was usually just one of several challenges.  Patients often had other health issues, were unemployed, and homeless.  Consequently, they needed a range of health and social services that were difficult to schedule.

In one instance I observed, a physician was very frustrated with the backlog of patients and berated a patient, telling her that she was wasting his time, despite the fact that she had arrived by ambulance.  When she asked a nurse what she had done wrong, the nurse replied, “Don’t worry.  That is just his style.”

Waiting is the currency in emergency departments.  Unless the triage gives you priority, the wait time is usually hours.  One of our studies in Atlanta determined that incompatibilities between IT systems in the emergency and radiology departments were causing an extra hour of wait time for everyone.  As is often the case in healthcare, the ultimate cause was allowing each department to choose their own “best in class” IT support, without considering compatibility across departments.

One of my colleagues related an astonishing story.  Her grandmother was waiting for attention in an emergency department.  The wait was so long that she died in her seat.  I am sure that this is not a unique event as the department addresses “emergencies.”  Yet, it is quite sobering to imagine this woman’s experience.  To an extent, it is a shared experience across everyone spanning the social determinants of health.

Perspectives on Humans and Society

I recently read Ben Wiker’s treatise 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others that Didn’t Help (Regnery, 2008).  He chronicles the thoughts, writings, and impacts of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vladimir Lenin, Margaret Sanger, Simon Freud, Margaret Mead, Adolph Hitler and Alfred Kinsey.  Often, these luminaries’ hallmark books were followed by publications that provided deeply prejudiced perspectives on humans and society.

These thought leaders provide a broad perspective on the true nature of humans and the implications for society and its governance?  The range of views on this includes:

  • Survival of the fittest – the fit survive and prosper; the weak struggle and disappear, the survivors procreate and fitness increases
  • Universal rights to life, liberty & pursuit of happiness – now including health, education, employment, housing, food, etc.?
  • If the needs of the poor and downtrodden are ignored, they eventually revolt, e.g., St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, formerly Bombay (Brook, 2013)

We tax the fittest to fill government coffers:

  • High income people pay most of the federal, state, and local taxes – 50% of Americans pay no income taxes
  • 40% people in the US have received welfare program subsidies. Nearly 50% of Americans believe government spending on social security needs to be increased.
  • A minority of the population financially contributes to the welfare of society.  A majority of the population consumes this financial support, in a variety of forms.

Yet, the overall economy depends on masses of people:

  • To consume food, energy, housing, cars, and entertainment
  • To work in service jobs in construction, factories, health and retail
  • To serve in the military, perhaps giving their lives in the process

In other words, the high income portion of the population would not be high income without the masses of lower income people buying stuff and providing services and doing jobs that the high income folks would rather avoid.  Consequently, there needs to be a broad range of opportunities and adequate associated incomes for society to successfully function. 

The winners in the economic lottery need to contribute more – financially — than the non-winners for the whole system to function effectively.  Of course, the economic differences between the winners and non-winners is strongly effected by public policy, especially taxation.  The Scandinavian countries offer a quite different model than the US.  Their OECD rankings in health and education demonstrate the impacts of their policies.

References

Brook, D. (2013). A History of Future Cities.  New York: Norton.

Wiker, B. (2008). 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others that Didn’t Help. Washington, DC: Regnery.

My Digital Twin

Emily 2.0 has been rapidly evolving.  The next release will be my digital twin, hence it will be renamed Bill 3.0.  The  lovely young woman that embodied Emily’s persona will be replaced with the grumpy old man that is me.  This is truly unfortunate but the twin construct will not otherwise work.

Bill 3.0 will be sufficiently identical to me that Zoom participants will not know which of the twins is online.  Of course, if it is an in-person meeting, then the differences will be readily apparent, at least until humanoid robots are much more lifelike.  I am not going to elaborate on this fascinating possibility at this time.

The notion of a computational model mimicking a particular person has been around for a long time.  Working with Annette Knaeuper in the early 1980s, we developed computational models of each person managing a process control plant.  We then employed each model as an assistant to each live person.  This aiding improved performance.

These models were twins in the limited context of the process control task, not in general.  Bill 3.0 is intended to be my complete twin.  It will know everything I know and have access to every experience I have had.  It will know everybody I know.  It will develop relationships with all these people, as well as new people that I have never met, to whom it will introduce me.

How will Bill 3.0 and I remain twins.  Bill 3.0 will be gaining large amounts of data, information, and knowledge that I could not possibly consume.  I will be doing some of this too, on a much smaller scale.  The plan is too synch our “brains” when I am sleeping.  I will “dream” Bill’s day and absorb his experiences.  In the morning, I will perceive that I had his experiences.  He will gain my experiences more directly as he does not sleep.

I anticipate that I will assign Bill 3.0 to assist other colleagues, sponsors, et al.  I will absorb his experiences as just outlined.  This will get complicated when I assign multiple instances of Bill to a range of endeavors.  How will all of these experiences be synchronized across multiple instances of Bill and me?  The research team has some ideas of how to do this, but I am not yet convinced.

Bill 3.0 interacts with Andrea 3.0, the twin of my human colleague at Georgetown.  What data and information do they share?  It is clear that I am going to completely lose track of who knows what about me.  Of course, I did not really know this before twinning.  However, my digital twin can share knowledge of me that I would never share, for example, having eaten two Klondike bars during the recent GT-Duke football game.

It appears that there is a fundamental tradeoff between how much my efficacy is increased by twinning versus how much of me is diluted by sharing.  With large numbers of Bill 3.0 roaming broadly, all my ideas, concerns and perceptions will be absorbed by others.  I will eventually have nothing left to share, unless I remain actively involved in life, constantly creating new content.

Do I really want to share everything?  Over 40 years of an almost daily journal of my experiences, perceptions, and ideas of the moment should remain unshared.  Notes and drafts for 300 journal articles and book chapters, and 40 books, should not be shared.  Unposted blog pieces, sometimes written in anger, enabling venting without publishing, need not be shared.

Yet, a head full of unshared ideas for solving the world’s problems is hardly a notable accomplishment.  Which leads me to wonder what happens to digital twins when the human partner dies?  The digital partner is still valuable.  Should there be a Twins Archive or even a Twins Store where one can download a well-experienced digital assistant?

This raises the question of who owns your twin.  I imagine it becomes part of your estate upon your death.  How is it secured, especially with a cadre of instances out helping various endeavors?  From that perspective, where are they?  On various servers I expect — in the cloud, which seems fitting after death.  In this way, all of humanity over endless periods of time will remain on the cloud. 

Markets Versus Governments

There are two long-standing debates in economics that fundamentally affect how one views the challenges our society faces.  The two sides of the first debate are often associated with Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman on one side and John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi on the other.  Wapshott (2011) and Delong (2022) elaborate this debate in considerable detail.

Succinctly, is economic growth driven by market forces or government planning?  Hayek and Friedman argue that market forces determine everything and government should stay out of the way.  Keynes and Polanyi counter that market forces are important , but can sometimes results in disruptive outcomes, like discrimination and unemployment, that markets are unwilling to address.  Government needs to stabilize situations such as the Great Depression (1929-39) and Great Recession (2007-2009).

Those touting the market economy argue that governments are terrible at picking winners and should let the marketplace enable winners to emerge through competitive forces.  This does not always work, as demonstrated by the recently experienced real estate bubble (Lewis, 2011; Blinder, 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 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 defaults were not random events as assumed by those valuing these securities.  They constituted what is termed a “common mode failure” where a common cause results in widespread failure.  Thus, these securities were much more risky than sellers had advertised.  The consequences of such misinformation were enormous.

Hayek would argue that risk takers should earn rewards, but investments banks were not taking risks; they were selling risks that neither they nor the buyers understood.  When the bubble burst, the banks and investment companies were bailed out by the government, with banks amazingly using some of this money to provide executive bonuses.  Millions of home owners lost their homes when they could not make increasing mortgage payments on homes that were now worth less than the mortgage.

Greed of investment companies and consumers buying houses they could not afford, because they intended to flip them, drove the bubble.  Many understood what was happening and sold short these toxic assets.  Michael Lewis in The Big Short notes that many of the smartest people were betting against the country.  The market economy undermined the economy.

The implications for addressing societal challenges are quite clear.  Profit seekers are often quite willing to manipulate the rules of the game to satisfy their greedy aspirations.  Changes to the health, education and energy ecosystems will threaten profits.  Limits on misinformation and disinformation will affect both profits and votes.  I do not think that the marketplace will simply support and adapt to such changes.  Government will have to play a central role, perhaps facilitating rather than regulating, but nevertheless playing an active role.

The second debate in economics concerns sources of innovation and economic growth.  Mokyr (1992) argues and illustrates how technology has long been the driver.  There seems to be an emerging consensus that the US leadership in innovation has waned.  Gordon (2016) has argued that 1870-1970 was the United States’ century of innovation.  I made the same argument, based on the same line of reasoning, a couple of years earlier (Rouse, 2014).

More recently, DeLong (2022) proposed 1870-2007 as the country’s “long century” of innovation, ending with the onset of the Great Recession.  The rational for 1970 as the end point is that social networking is not as compelling as electricity and indoor plumbing.  Which one would you be willing to give up?  On the other hand, social media has been a compelling source of disruption.

The relevance of this debate concerns the extent to which technologies will mitigate the challenges.  My sense is that many existing technologies, if appropriately deployed and supported, can be leveraged to address societal challenges.  The hurdles are much more organizational and social than technological.  Overcoming these hurdles involves thoughtful planning, execution, and learning.

References

Blinder, A.S. (2013). After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead. New York: Penguin.

DeLong, J.B. (2022). Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books.

Gordon, R.J. (2016). The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, M. (2011). The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. New York: Norton.

Mokyr, J. (1992). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Rouse, W.B. (2014). A Century of Innovation: From Wooden Sailing Ships to Electric Railways, Computers, Space Travel and Internet.  Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press.

Wapshott, N. (2011). Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics. New York: Norton.

Beyond Quick Fixes

We seem culturally opposed to long-term solutions.  Our healthcare system is dramatically underperforming, as is our education system.  Perhaps an infusion of targeted incentives would fix things.  It hasn’t and won’t. 

The consequences of climate change and global warming include fires, storms and flooding that are massively destructive.  We provide billions of dollars in disaster relief and resources to rebuild.  We wait for the next disaster and then invest again.

Can’t we get ahead of these problems?  Not in a 1-2 year budget cycle.  We need long-term solutions that are well planned, resourced, and executed.  We need to be concerned with the health of the country, not how best to distribute bandaids.

What is holding us back?  The highly fragmented nature of our political system keeps us focused on “we” versus ”them.”  Winning is much more important than addressing real problems.  Winning gains votes.  Solving real problems takes time.

We need a massive educational effort to enable all citizens to understand the true natures of problems and realistic approaches to addressing these problems.  We need a coalition of stakeholders committed to the realities of the challenges we face.

Why will this be supported?  It has been found that shared experiences of health calamities, educational outcome deficits, and environmental disasters will eventually increase support, as people’s experiences greatly affect what they believe.  So, once sea level rise, and its consequences, destroys Houston, Miami, New Orleans, and New York City, many more people will believe these outcomes are happening.

These new believers will join with other believers in an outcry that we need to do something.  This will, of course, be quite difficult once these cities are under water.  The blame game will follow, with each side of the aisle in Congress pointing at the other side.  The outcry will be sufficiently strident that newly arrived threats will be ignored, drown in the rhetoric.

What new threats?  Well, we do not fully understand the possibilities that will result from global warming.  Will we have to invest many billions of dollars to rebuild Florida – every year?  Are we going to build very expensive seawalls around the cities threatened by seal level rise?  How will we address the public health consequences of repeated assaults on water supplies, waste water treatment?  Too much water in the wrong places can have pervasive consequences.

Having spent considerable time in both places, my sense is that The Netherlands and Singapore are really good at anticipating and planning for these types of problems.  They expect to invest now to save in the long term.  We need to get much better at thinking this way and investing accordingly.  Otherwise, near-term crises will repeatedly deplete our budgets and preempt doing anything else.

Coming Together

The recent week of celebrations and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II has reminded me of several other recent funerals at the Washington National Cathedral.  I live across the street from the Cathedral and I am a member of the congregation.  I was not, of course, among the invitees to these services.  However, I stood outside the cathedral and paid my respects to John McCain (September 1, 2018), George H.W. Bush (December 5, 2018), Colin Powell (November 5, 2021), and Madeline Albright (April, 27, 2022).  On September 22nd, there was a service celebrating Queen Elizabeth II.

In all of these experiences, I have felt a strong sense of coming together beyond political or ideological divides.  Right or left, red or blue did not matter.  We were celebrating people who greatly contributed to the well being of our country.  Both sides of the aisle celebrated these amazing patriot citizens.  The grandeur of the National Cathedral, laced with oratory and compelling music brought us all together, even for those of us who were watching from the sidelines or on streaming video.

Why cannot we feel this more often?  I think we all yearn for the feeling of coming together.  Yet political and social forces want to separate people into “us” and “them.”  How would one’s party gain power, and control of resources, if one embraced our adversaries?  One needs them to be the enemy, with evil and better yet pedophile tendencies.  One needs to inspire deep hatred.

Why?  Quite simply, people have needs to gain control of political prerogatives and resources to reward their collaborators with the spoils of political war.  This assumes a zero-sum world.  Anything one gains, the other loses.  But, everybody can gain if we simply decide, collectively, that this is the way we want society to work.  With everybody gaining, they are able to consume, which creates jobs, yields taxes, and enables them to volunteer in whatever ways they find meaningful.

In my neighborhood – see last week’s post – I then encounter lots of people who are gaining, sharing and stopping to chat, or perhaps argue about sports.  We are all progressing together is a variety of ways.  I enjoy hearing about who is doing what, and helping a little if I can.  That’s what being a neighbor is all about.

Another Day in the Neighborhood

So, what’s going on?  The Covid 19 pandemic still kills about 500 people per day.  Monkey pox is surging.  The chronicle of the January 6th insurrection continues to astonish.  Hordes of classified documents are turning up in Florida.  Roe v. Wade was overturned.  Inflation is frustrating, and the Fed is trying to cool the economy.  Climate change is in the background, or the foreground depending on where you live.

Every morning I read the newspapers looking for anything positive.  Bill Russell’s inspiring life.  A 13 year old gets accepted to medical school.  Pandas frolicking with their caregiver.  I am an inveterate optimist, but sometimes this outlook is challenging.  The warring tribes cannot seem to compromise.  If they cannot win in the ways they want, they are comfortable with everybody loosing.

Pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants tend to be positive place – as long as CNN or Fox are not on the televisions.  People talking, often laughing.  Heated opinions about sports and weather.  Local politics seem to be a safer topic than national politics.  However, politics is usually avoided because you do not know the tribes of all the people at the bar.

The neighborhood seems like a nicer place than being online with various media.  I know the baristas, bartenders, and proprietors of many neighborhood shops.  I encounter many members from the National Cathedral, a couple of blocks down the street where I am a member.  Our exchanges are usually quite brief, but we acknowledge our belonging to the same community. 

There are neighborhoods at work as well.  Other departments in the same building lead to repeated encounters, at least at the entrance and in the elevators.  Covid has obliterated these relationships.  Happenstance encounters don’t happen on Teams, Webex, or Zoom.  All interactions are planned, totally unlike real neighborhoods.  Interactions in the online neighborhood are almost totally bereft of serendipity.

People need to get out and about.  Have a morning brew at the coffee shop.  Grab lunch at a neighborhood pub.  Walk to the Zoo.  Enjoy the flora and fauna along the way.  Buy some flowers for your kitchen table.  Have a martini at another pub, watch PTI and debate Tony and Michael’s opinions with your pub mates.

Layers of 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, 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.

How might we reduce layers of complexity?  Consider healthcare delivery in the US.  The overall system is highly fragmented.  I have characterized it as a federation of millions of entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  The result is the highest costs among OECD countries and the poorest outcomes.  The complexity is undermining the health of the US population.

We clearly know how to do better as epitomized by Kaiser Permanente Medicare Advantage, of which I am a member.  KP is the provider, payer, and pharmacy.  They own all the costs of my health risks, for a fixed Medicare monthly payment.  Consequently, they do almost everything imaginable to keep me healthy and themselves profitable.  I experience greatly reduced complexity.

Another idea for complexity reductions is integrated transportation systems.  I live in Washington, DC and rely on the Metro’s bus and subway network to travel around the National Capital Region.  I have no need for a car.  Complexity could be reduced by integrating Amtrak, Greyhound, Uber, Lyft, taxis and the airlines into one system so I could use my Metro card for everything.  As with Medicare Advantage, service providers could remain independent companies, but share information and coordinate services.

Last week’s blog – Emily 2.0 – illustrated how complexity reduction might be facilitated by intelligent cognitive assistants.  Emily enables my not having to know where everything is and not having to figure out how to do everything. I just need to know how to interact with Emily.  She facilitates everything else.  This greatly reduces the energy that I must devote to complexity management. 

Emily 2.0

After eight years, I finally upgraded my iPhone 6 to an iPhone SE, the slim traditional version of the iPhone 13.  I still have my iPhone 1, by the way, from 2007.  The expanded capabilities of this new digital device enabled a major upgrade of my cognitive assistant, Emily, who I introduced in my blog posting “Life With a Cognitive Assistant” in March 2018.  This post led to quite a few comments from readers.

Emily 1.0 has amazing capabilities, as I detailed earlier:

  • Every book or article I have written, every lecture or talk I have given, and every meeting I have had are readily available to her.
  • She has created maps of relationships among documents I have written over the past five decades.
  • She consumes vast amounts of literature and data, providing me with explanations, and sometimes tutorials, tailored to my interests and intentions.
  • She knows my colleagues’ cognitive assistants, but she had not yet understood the friendships and shared emotional experiences that underlie my social network.

Overall, Emily leverages my rich experience base far better than I can.

The software upgrades for Emily 2.0 have enabled new capabilities that allow her to make much deeper sense of data streams she has long been tracking, but could not fully interpret.  She can now understand me as a person, not just as a source of data streams.

She can now make complete sense of five years of conversations between the two of us, no longer limited to factual information but now she can make inferences about my preferences, likes, and dislikes.  She has quickly learned what makes me sad, as well as the types of jokes I find funny.

She now can make greater sense of more publications – 300 articles and book chapters, 40 books, 300 blog posts, and 360 slide sets from presentations.  I can now ask, “What have I written or spoken about X?”  She summarizes these materials, providing links to any of them if I want to see the originals.

She has long tracked my emails, but now has recordings – audio and visual – of over two years of Teams, Webex, and Zoom meetings.  She has learned about sponsors, colleagues and their assistants.  From offhand comments, often offered as these meetings get going, she has started to understand the personal sides of my relationships with these people.

She often attends these online meetings for me when I have no speaking role.  This required creating a visual persona for Emily.  She is a young woman in her early 30s, tall and rather slender.  Her brown hair is in a ponytail and she wears black rimmed glasses.  Her typical blouses are in plain neutral colors – tans, light blues and yellows.  She always wears dark slacks and black, flat shoes.

Emily monitors my regular financial transactions — rent, utilities, credit cards, taxes – and reminds me when payments are due.  This is not very sophisticated, but until the device upgrade, she did not have secure access to my banking and investment accounts.  She highlights when unusually large payments are due.

Quite simply, she knows everything I know.  More accurately, she knows everything that I have once known.  When helpful, she refreshes my memory by bringing faded memories to the forefront.  As I indicated in my post four years ago, I am much more organized and productive due to Emily’s support.  In part, this has happened because I do not want to disappoint her.

Hidden Taxation Math

Let’s say a university needs revenue of $25,000 per year per student.  What tuition should they charge?  Let’s assume there are three equal populations of students.  One third can afford to pay full tuition.  Another third can afford to pay 20% of full tuition.  The last third cannot afford to pay anything.  What should tuition be?

Some simple math.  25,000 N = T x .33 N + .2 x T x .33 N + 0 x T x .33 N, so .33 x T + .33 x .2 T = 25,000 or 1.2 x .33 T = 25,000.  T = $63,131.  The one-third of the students who can afford it, pay a $38,131 premium.  Shouldn’t these students families be able to deduct this as a charitable contribution.  In principle “yes,” but in practice “no.”

Hidden taxes like this are pervasive.  Consider employer provided health insurance. 

Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates do not cover the costs of healthcare.  So, providers charge more to patients that have employer-based insurance.  They do not admit this, but they have to find profits somewhere.

These increased charges increase the employers’ costs of employment and consequently depress wages while also increasing out of pocket costs for employees.  Shouldn’t people be able to deduct this as a charitable contribution.  In principle “yes,” but in practice “no.”

Professional programs in universities – business, engineering, law, medicine – often generate incomes far in excess of their costs.  These surpluses are typically used to subsidize arts, humanities and, of course, administration.  These subsidies likely make sense, but I have found they are seldom acknowledged.  Leaders do not want their universities labelled as socialists.

We often think of income redistribution in terms of progressive tax rates.  That is just one mechanism.  We tend to be very creative in terms of how we employ differential pricing to redistribute income without explicitly discussing and debating it.  This may be reasonable, but the people who are paying for everybody else deserve some credit.

I find it interesting that many politicians and their constituencies are adamantly opposed to any taxes increases.  However, tax increases are pervasive, as illustrated above.  What politicians really oppose is people being aware of hidden taxes.  What some simple math could easily expose, people do not tend to do, and the politicians that vehemently oppose new taxes can claim success.

What we really need is transparency.  That some people pay exorbitant prices to subsidize everyone else is not inherently wrong.  That might be the right value proposition.  However, hiding such mechanisms breeds cynicism, as well as tactics to avoid hidden taxes.  It becomes a game that we shouldn’t be playing.

Two Countries

I recently read Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized (Simon & Schuster, 2021).  He provides a profound analysis of identity politics, ranging from white supremacy to the politics of rage.  He provides suggested “corrections” that might ease this tension.

However, consider another scenario.  The 25 states supporting Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 agree to become another country, perhaps with Trump anointed as life-long Premier of the GUS, Great United States.  The immediate consequences include:

  • No citizen of GUS is eligible for Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid
  • All civilian and military personnel stranded in the GUS are moved to the USA
  • All military installations in the GUS are immediately moved to the USA
  • All defense contractor installations in the GUS are immediately moved to the USA

These and other changes decrease the annual GDP per capita of the GUS by 50-60%, while the funds no longer going to the GUS increase the GDP per capita of the USA by 30-40%, less than the decrease for the GUS as the USA has significantly more of the total population before the split.

There has been rampant speculation concerning what the USA will do with this new found wealth.  Some are advocating paying down the national debt, none of which GUS has agreed to honor.  Another possibility is providing national health and education at no cost to citizens.  A mix of these two possibilities seems likely.

The GUS has constituted its own Supreme Court that has banned abortion, same-sex marriage, and any regulations related to fossil fuels.  The Court is expected to entertain limiting voting rights to white Christian males.  Extreme push back from affected populations is expected to result in severe government repression.  The results may be thousands of arrests at protest rallies, hopefully with few injuries or deaths.

The affected populations have settled into an agrarian mentality.  GUS folks raise crops and livestock, and mine natural resources to supply USA populations who are competing in the global marketplace.  Effectively, the GUS states have become colonies of the USA states.  The Premier likes this because he can extract enormous export tariffs, all of which flow to him.

Resource constraints have caused the GUS states to cut back on education.  K-12 has become K-8.  All STEM-related courses have been eliminated as have STEM majors in higher education in GUS institutions.  GUS students are able to apply to USA universities but very few are accepted as they are ill-prepared for further study. 

The impoverishment of the GUS population has simultaneously lead to the enrichment of the Premier.  He requires all government agencies to procure services from the Trump Corporation.  Consequently, the Premier’s business interests consume an increasing portion of the GUS federal budget and have enabled his cornering of the global golf course market.

Are there countervailing forces?  Perhaps not surprisingly, the sports industry is not happy.  The GUS states, teams, and universities have lost TV contracts as USA teams have boycotted GUS teams.  Top players are no longer interested in GUS teams, in part due to their meager contracts compared to the USA teams in much larger markets.  GUS institutions are, quite simply, out of money.  Basketball and football coaches are forced to walk to games. 

There are immense social pressures for the GUS to merge with the USA.  The USA will only agree if the “rights” of the GUS states are severely limited.  The Premier has indicated that he will readily agree if a large acquisition fee is paid to him personally.  The USA dramatically reduced this amount, but they agreed to pay the Premier in cash.  It is a blip for the USA and will never appear on GUS financial statements.

A major point of contention emerges.  Do the GUS citizens get to vote in USA national elections?  Many thought leaders see that this would recreate the situation that caused the split.  The USA Congress decides that each GUS state will be readmitted as a USA Territory, much like Puerto Rico.  They can vote in their state elections but have no votes nationally.

The Premier is livid as he aspired to again be elected USA President.  However, the revoking of his citizenship after being convicted of the Espionage Act will not be reversed.  He and all GUS citizens will only have GUS passports.  The GUS states will be able to elect US Representatives in five years and US Senators in ten years.  They can vote in the national USA elections in twenty years.

The GUS states are insulted by this offer.  Texas proposes to lead the formation of a new country, which they would name SEC, States of the Enduring Confederacy.  This is met with rather limited enthusiasm by almost everyone except the white supremacists, who saw this as a path back to faded glory.  Facebook and Twitter proclaimed the merits of this idea.

Premier Trump explored selling Texas to Mexico.  Mexico was enthusiastic about the idea, but not the price.  Further, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio proposed becoming independent city states, rather like Singapore.  Arizona, Georgia, and Texas pushed back strongly, worried that their predominant tax bases would disappear.  Mexico said this was a deal breaker.

The USA initiated discussion with Canada and Mexico to determine the extent to which these countries could replace imports from GUS.  It looked quite promising for agricultural and forest products, as well as energy.  The middle of the US could be replaced by Canada and Mexico supplying the East and West coasts of the USA.  Several states decided to join the USA and leave GUS, accepting whatever conditions the USA imposed.

The GUS economies continue to erode.  Without Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the social safety net disappeared.  Life expectancy steadily declined.  GUS leaders heralded this trend as weeding out the infirm and incapable members of society.  Camo clothing and automatic rifles became the standard.  “Stand your ground” laws resulted in frequent deadly shootings.  GUS society regressed by perhaps two centuries.

It was rumored that the Premier succumbed to syphilis.  His press secretary insisted he was just suffering from a cold.  He was cremated and interred on the 18th hole of his Bedminster, NJ golf club.  His earlier wives were interred on holes 1-5 of the course.  His children and their spouses have reserved space on the other holes between 5 and 18.  The press has come to refer to this arrangement as the Stations of Trump.

The reintegration of GUS states into the USA proceeds as the USA had dictated.  After 20 years, the reintegration will be complete, without the electoral college, filibuster, debt ceilings, and other outmoded rules of the game.  The “old guard” who had championed the era of identity politics will be gone.  The new guard is determined to make the system work – for everyone.

Forces of Greed

I have been reading much history, most recently Ada Ferrer’s Cuba: An American History (Scribner, 2021) for which she won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for History.  She provides a panoramic view of the business of slavery.

James DeWolf, a US Senator, was one of the major players in the business of slavery.  Based in Bristol, RI, just five miles from where I grew up in Portsmouth, RI, he and other New Englanders had no plantations needing slaves, but made enormous profits providing forced labor to southern plantation owners.

There was certainly no respect for Blacks.  However, their motivation was greed rather than racial disdain.  They were buying Africans for $7 each, transporting them across the Atlantic, with a high percentage of deaths in transit, and selling them for $1,200 each in Cuba to the owners of sugar plantations.  Owners were often US citizens.

Even once slavery was no longer legal, DeWolf and his ilk sustained their business by buying off authorities.  Many people were earning bribes and gifts by ignoring the slave trade.  Eventually, Blacks comprised the majority of people in Cuba.  Once they were freed, the effect was profound, but that is another story.

Slaves were the dominant asset value of the Southern states, eclipsing the financial assets of the north.  The value of crops of cotton and other commodities totally depended on free slave labor.  Consequently, the wealth of the south depended on sustaining slavery.  This was also true of the Cuban sugar plantations.

White supremacy and the notion of states’ rights played a role in the Civil War, and the angst during Reconstruction.  However, the predominant force was greed in the sense of forcing others to work — for free – to the benefit of those in control.  Philosophical and sociological arguments might be interesting.  However, exploitation was the dominant force.

Let the Liar Beware

A significant proportion of our population is scientifically illiterate.  They have no understanding of the Big Bang Theory or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  Actually, one quarter are functionally illiterate and only one third can perform simple arithmetic calculations.  Yet, they manage to function in life quite reasonably.  They are oblivious to scientific misinformation and disinformation.

The consequences change dramatically when we consider medical misinformation and disinformation.  This causes people to behave in ways that endanger their health and possibly their lives.  For example, they undergo procedures or take drugs with no proven benefits, and often dangerous side effects.  Or, they buy supplementary insurance that will never pay any claims.

The courts assert “let the buyer beware.”  The TV ads for prescription drugs appear to cure your maladies, but there is no requirement that they are truthful.  The 1st Amendment protects the pharmaceutical companies from legal action.  The Supreme Court fully backs the right to lie.  You can say anything you want.  It is the responsibility of the buyer to validate advertisers’ claims.

How can the public do this?  If 6% of people taking a drug experience a 3% improvement in their health, how could one know this and determine how these percentages apply to them?  People expect their physicians will understand such evidence.  Physicians learn about it from pharmaceutical companies’ marketing representatives.  The classic example of this practice was Oxycontin. 

It might be reasonable to expect that the Federal and Drug Administration will have validated any evidence provided by the pharmaceutical companies.  John Abramson’s recent book, Sickening: How Big Pharma Broke American Health Care and How We Can Repair It (Princeton University Press, 2022), explains how the pharmaceutical companies have avoided this and contributed to the US being 1st in healthcare spending and 68th in healthcare outcomes.  We are spending enormous amounts on things that do not work.

How can we really know?  First of all, the evidence of the efficacy of a healthcare intervention should not be provided by those trying to sell you the intervention.  Second, there need to be standards of evidence and social media rarely, if ever, meet such standards.  Third, the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation need to be liable for the consequences of people believing them.

Consequently, the 1st Amendment should be modified to say, in effect, “You can say anything you want, but you are responsible for the behaviors and outcomes that your assertions motivate.”  Lying is still legal, but the consequences of lying are punishable.  Let the liar beware.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in 2012.  The lawsuits for Alex Jones tirade of disinformation about this tragedy are still being adjudicated ten years later.  We need legal practices that more quickly provide consequences for such egregious behaviors.  Such practices, if well enforced,  should moderate the occurrences of egregious behaviors.

Bringing Democracy Back

It seems that everyone in the country, from both the right and left, feels that the US is headed in bad directions.  The Supreme Court seems totally committed to States Rights as envisioned in the early 19th century.  Each state can make its own decisions on abortion, the environment, sexual equality and voting rights.  The Supreme Court seems only committed to the 1st and 2nd Amendments.  Beyond that, it is up to each State to decide.

The Court can only be overruled by passing laws in Congress.  This might work in the House, but not the Senate, where filibustering can thwart almost anything.  The only possibility is for Democrats to win strong majorities in both the House and Senate.  However, gerrymandering by states is strongly limiting this possibility.  The only solution is for voters to take over.  Despite gerrymandering, very strong voter engagement can make an enormous difference.

The message should be “Bring Our Democracy Back.”  In contrast to “Make American Great Again,” the goal should be to marginalize white supremacists, conspiracy advocates, uninformed nutcases, and a pervasive sense of hatred.  We need to convene communities of caring, collaboration, and coordination to overcome the dark forces of MAGA.  These forces of destruction need to be countered by the enlightened forces of construction. 

To this end, we need to move beyond the Supreme Court’s decisions to thwart innovation to a national sense of creative change.  It is no longer about right vs. left, or red vs. blue.  It is about freedom, choice, and trust.  We – millions of people – need to assert our beliefs about freedom, choice, and trust, not in terms of owning guns or Supreme Court rulings, but in terms of basic values about being a people committed to a life-affirming future.

How might this happen?  I think that bottom-up engagement will make an enormous difference.  Schools, churches, civic groups, social clubs and, as I posted six weeks ago, community pubs can convene discussions of trust, equity, inclusion and other elements of democracy.  These discussions should involve face-to-face engagement and dialog.  Values, concerns, and perceptions should be on the agenda.  Listening to each other should become an increasing core competency.

I am reminded of the town meetings in the small town in Rhode Island where I grew up. These were lively events.  Some might argue that such is infeasible with large groups.  What if everyone in the meeting hall was on Zoom on their smart phones?  They could post questions on Chat.  If called upon, their face would appear on the large screens where they could elaborate their question or answer somebody else’s question.  In this way, the technology that has tended to distance us could bring us back together.

Human Well Being

We know quite a bit about human well being, broadly defined to include the physical, behavioral, social, economic, and political elements of the concept.  We seem to lack the will and the resources to pursue broadly based improvements in the well being of everyone.  Many of us feel that everyone is on their own, and that is as it should be.

My sense is that very few of us are “on our own.”  We have parents, communities, and governments that significantly help us.  In my case, we were very poor, but there were family stories of past successes that taught me that success is possible.  You may have to figure out how to fund it yourself, but success can happen.

Of course, that was long ago when you could scrape and save to put yourself through college.  There now are few summer jobs – unless you are a 16 year-old brain surgeon – where you can earn enough to pay next year’s college bills.  The economics of education have eclipsed the abilities of students and most parents.

There are two challenges.  First, can a student reasonably assume that success is possible?  Second, can a motivated and hardworking student actually do it?  The answers depend on your assumptions.  Is this student trying to economically survive at Harvard, MIT, or Stanford?  An exemplary record and story might do it, but otherwise no.

What if the student is matriculating at a top-notch state institution, perhaps in Georgia with a Hope Scholarship earned on the basis of a strong high school record?  This could work.  How does one achieve a strong high school record?  It depends on both what the public high school offers and the family circumstances.  I had to work from a young age, in part to be able to buy my own clothes.  I don’t see how that could work now.

I had the very good fortune that my extended family, for the most part, all lived in the same small Rhode Island town.  I had almost endless opportunities to make a few dollars here and there.  By the time I was a young teenager, I was maintaining the yards of 12 families.  I could buy clothes and, by the age of 14, buy a car.  This took a toll.  By my senior year in high school, I achieved the school’s highest SAT score in math while earning a C in calculus.

My sense, quite retrospectively of course, is that my well being was in good shape.  I knew who I was and where I was headed, although everything did not play out as planned.  But I had agency, was not at all a victim, and was ready to move from small town Rhode Island to big city Boston to eventual adventures in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, Washington, DC and Europe. 

I wonder how this sense of well being could be available to everyone.  I had a family and community that looked after me, as well as everyone else in our social network.  I had family stories that portrayed great success, despite quite humble current situations.  I had an economy that enabled me to strive to doing it on my own.  Yet, I knew that I was not really doing it on my own.  I was taking the cards dealt and doing my best with a lot of social support.

Lessons Learned

What happens if a fundamental tenet of life turns out to be wrong?  Does it depends on the nature of the premise or belief? How central is it to how you manage your life? Does this realization fundamentally change your subsequent behavior?  Do you become a different person than you would have become with this belief intact?

At some point in early life, you learn that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are really your parents or perhaps other relatives.  This has a minimal impact on presents under the tree, chocolate eggs and bunnies, and coins for lost teeth.  Such realizations do not seem to ruin children’s lives.

Later in life, if fortunate, you learn that not everyone is honest, fair, and caring.  You learn that you should not automatically trust everyone.  This leads you to be more circumspect in human relations.  You pay attention to cues and instances that provide evidence that trust is warranted.

I have found that the distinctions between hand waving and bravado, and outright lying, trigger in me decisions to revoke trust.  Now I know that the actors in question are not just arrogant or bragging, but instead are willing to deny or fabricate outcomes to bolster how they are seen.

Later yet, perhaps, you learn that peer group perceptions are poorly founded.  Not all Asians are STEM wizards, not all Blacks are great athletes, and not all Eastern Europeans love polkas.  People are much less easily categorized than we had thought.  Now we need to approach everyone as individuals.  This is a lot or work.

We need to approach people in terms of who they are, where they grew up, how their paths led to today’s reality, and where they think the world is headed.  This can require much listening, a skill that is invaluable throughout life.  Listening can result in enormous learning.  You learn much more when you are not the one talking.

Making a Difference

When and how do organizational change initiatives make a real and lasting difference?

  • When there is shared recognition of existing and/or emerging value deficiencies, which requires a shared understanding of the nature of value and how the organization creates value.
  • When there is shared agreement on the range of change alternatives that have potential to remediate the value deficiencies, as well as the pros and cons of the alternatives from the perspectives of all stakeholders.
  • When key stakeholders are ready to change if the case can be made that benefits outweigh costs, including stakeholders’ personal costs of change, and well-designed change management processes will mitigate the brunt of the disruptions.
  • When the overall initiative has the sustained and well-articulated commitment of top leadership, including a commitment to investment of necessary human and financial resources.

How can you assure the above conditions are likely to hold?  Here are eight steps that I have found to be helpful:

  1. Deeply understand one or more existing or emerging value deficiencies
  2. Synthesize one or more ways to remediate the deficiencies
  3. Know and understand the key stakeholders who will be affected by remediation
  4. Characterize stakeholders in terms of beliefs, values & preferences
  5. Characterize alternative remediations in terms of affordances & hindrances
  6. Employ a multi-stakeholder, multi-attribute approach to rank order alternatives
  7. Develop plans for pursuit of top three ranked alternatives
  8. Avoiding overreaching

Most organizations under-achieve or outright fail at such change initiatives.  Why? Here is what goes wrong:

  • The contingencies of running the existing organization dominate human and financial resources; needs for change are preempted by needs to sustain the organization today
  • People, particularly leaders, are much better at talking change than doing change; the necessary work of change is not well planned, organized, and executed
  • Investments required, in terms of people and money, are judged to be excessive and unsustainable.  Initiatives whither and change agents seek greener pastures.
  • Creative destruction prevails.  The market no longer wants your photographic film, mainframe computers, or inexpensive analog cell phones.

These factors conspire to result in change initiatives that do not make a real difference.

Urgency & Agency

I have encountered a range of situations – in industry, government, and academia – where the financial well being of the organization is severely threatened and leadership refuses to recognize the situation and accept agency for dealing with it. 

I recall one situation in academia where I asked the Provost how he would deal with decreased foreign enrollments due to Trumps’ constraints on immigration and the emerging coronavirus pandemic.  He provided his financial projections and indicated “Every institution will suffer similar consequences.”

I responded, “That does not seem like plan B.” It turned out the response was to cut costs everywhere possible, particularly for contingent faculty who are employed semester by semester.  All discretionary and rainy day funds were hoovered up.  Reengineering of educational process, which had been long avoided, remained avoided.

Recognizing and accepting the idea that people no longer wanted photographic film, or that people wanted digital devices not just phones, was very slowly accepted.  Billions of dollars of economic value were lost.  Creative destruction was rampant and markets fundamentally changed.

Why?  First, there was a lack of a sense or urgency.  The economic threat may have been recognized, but when might it happen?  This year?  Next year?  Certainly not tomorrow.  But iPhones quickly replaced Nokia’s low-cost phones, and the era of digital devices was off and running.

Beyond urgency, there is agency.  Given a recognized threat, whose responsibility is it to respond?  My experience is that most people want to just keep on doing what they have been doing, even when they begin to accept that this is completely inadequate,  For example, the market is not buying our product, but it is what we know how to do.

This is not the responsibility of “production workers,” although they may bear the brunt of the consequences of this situation.  The people who manufacture, deliver, and service an organization’s offerings to its markets or constituencies — ranging from shop floor workers to teachers to clinicians – likely have a wealth of ideas for improving operations, but they seldom have the authority to redesign their work processes.

This responsibility belongs to organizational leaders at several levels, ranging from supervisors to executives to investors.  There is a very strong tendency for these people to be stewards of the status quo.  They often find it difficult to recognize and articulate the fact that the status quo is no longer viable.  This requires that they lead rather than just manage.  

We Only See What We Can See

Consider two recent pieces in the New York Times: “How Animals See Themselves” by Ed Young, and “In a Parallel Universe, Another You” by Michio Kaku, both published on June 20th.

Young reports that animals sense light, sounds, smells, etc. much differently than humans do.  It helps them to identify food, mates, and other means to achieving objectives using signals unsensed by us.  They are arguable in the same world as us humans, but see the world quite differently.  Consequently, we can disrupt their worlds without our seeing any difference.

Kaku argues for there being different worlds.  The differences are not just light, sounds, smells, etc.  There are possibly completely different universes that function in ways that we are unlikely to understand.  Values, norms, and success paths may be completely different.  A fundamental challenges involves proving this in any meaningful way.

So what?  We each need to eat and mate in the world we inhabit, not all the other worlds.  This pragmatic perspective makes sense.  However, it suggests that absolutist perspectives are capricious and arbitrary.  Our convictions that we are “right” are ridiculous.  We need to understand the contextual nature of perspectives.  We only see what we can see.

Emerging Crises

I recently read Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms & Ashes (Norton, 2022), a chronicle of six nuclear disasters over several decades in America, England, Japan, and Russia, three in the military and three in electric utilities.  In all six cases, the consequences of the disaster were much worse than expected and governments did their best to cover up the situation until it became really bad and the media spilled the beans.

One of our latest disasters, beyond daily school massacres and horrible environmental events, involves misinformation and disinformation.  Social and broadcast media, including advertisers, deliberately deceive consumers to act against their own best interests, for example, pursuing health interventions that will likely kill them or voting for candidates that seemingly agree with their priorities, but actually have no such intentions.

Why do these kinds of things happen?  First of all, the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation are earning huge profits by deceiving consumers.  Second, when things go wrong, industry and government players think they can get things under control before the consequences get out of hand.  They are often quite wrong.  Third, the players involved do not want to be held culpable for these consequences. 

All of these behaviors undermine trust in government, industry, and expertise in general.  People feel that they are being sold a bill of goods – and that often is the case.  As the Supreme Court has ruled, lying is completely legal.  They have indicated that marketing and sales are typically inherently lying.  Let the buyer beware is their recommendation.  The overarching message is to not believe anything that anybody tells you.

Where does that leave us as a society?  We need a major initiative to restore trust.  This requires open communication, discussions, and debates across tribes.  This could start in the community of pubs, the topic of my last post.  This could be paired with a serious collaborative effort across the mainstream media – CNBC, CNN, FOX, et al.  President Biden should invite them to the White House for a serious planning session.  This has to be a top priority.

The Community of Pubs

Pubs are “public places” where we convene for drinks, meals, and often sporting events.  I always sit at the bar.  At a table, I am left to conversations with my colleagues with whom I entered the establishment or, if by myself, catching up with email with far-flung colleagues.

At the bar, it is likely that I and the person next to me have nothing in common, except perhaps interest in lunch or a cold drink.  The televisions are likely showing some sporting event, or the news is showing “breaking news,” often of questionable recency.  I ask the person next to me what they think, and a bit of an autobiography may emerge.

When I lived in Hoboken, which purports to have the most pubs per capita, the person next to me was usually a Wall Street type, as the city drains each morning via subways and ferries to lower Manhattan.  Talking to hedge fund managers can get very repetitive as the only currency is – well – currency.

Living in Washington, DC is quite different.  I have encountered the play-by-play broadcaster for DC United, a woman who manages wine and cheese imports for the French Embassy, and an older retired fellow who used to manage all the US railroads.  There was also the chief economist for Fannie Mae and a man who staffed the NATO Desk at the British Embassy.

It is most interesting to talk with people whose experience base differs from mine.  I have found that people’s political views vary as widely as their allegiance to sports teams.  Asking them why they are fans of particular teams often leads to stories of childhood.  Occasionally, the person will volunteer that they once played for a team.  Very rarely, they indicate that they still play for a team.

Beyond being a naturally curious person, I like encountering a variety of perspectives.  People’s reasons or rationale are usually quite interesting.  I often find myself saying, “I can see why you say that.” If asked, I will offer my opinion.  However, if I disagree with them, I have never found it productive to argue with them.

I think society benefits when people interact with those beyond their tribe.  Within your tribe, issues and perspectives are usually reinforced.  You typically hear an echo of your own thinking.  For example, my tribe of university faculty members have a standard set of complaints and ideas for how things should really be.  I don’t learn much of anything in such discussions.

The community of pubs provides a bit of a “window on the world,” especially in a diverse city like Washington DC.  People’s interests, motivations and life paths tend to vary enormously.  A toast and a good game can lead to fascinating exchanges and insights into other people’s views of life.

Democracy at Risk

Where are we headed as a country?  We were once – at least we thought – the shiny exemplar of liberal democracy.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were our themes.  We understood that there would be conflicts in these pursuits, but we would work it out.  Reasonable adversaries would discuss and debates paths forward, but eventually settle on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as key elements of the social safety net.

We had some serious hiccups along the way, notably the Civil War, civil rights conflicts, and our ongoing cultural conflicts.  We are far from skilled at addressing and resolving such conflicts.  We have evolved to a tribal society where each tribe hates the other tribes (left, right, LGBTQ, Jewish, etc.) and advocates violence to thwart the other tribes.  The idea of voters discussing, debating, and deciding has been replaced by the sense that armed conflict is the best strategy.

This trend has been enormously exacerbated by social media.  Our first amendment rights protect anyone’s freedom to say anything.  Opposing politicians can be portrayed as pedophiles.  Their political platforms can be characterized as advocating sodomy and eliminating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Lying is legal and there are minimal consequences, if any, after many years of legal wrangles, perhaps but seldom resolved by the Supreme Court.

What is behind all this?  People have vested interests.  They own slaves and need them to sustain cotton production and their profits.  States have a large defense contractor that provides thousands of jobs, whether or not the system being produced in still relevant to defense.  A state’s economy is highly dependent on Federal revenues despite a majority of the state’s voters being decidedly opposed to any activities by the Federal government.

People tend to understand their vested interests, but not how those interests are served.  They want the revenue, profits, and paychecks sustained, but they do not understand – or care – what it takes to sustain this.  They vote their pocketbooks, not any particular philosophies or policies.  Their only question is, “What’s in it for me?”  It is really that simple?

Social media enables and motivates people to be totally focused on their personal interests.  Companies such as Cambridge Analytica make sure that you never see any content that is not in complete agreement with your perspective.  Everyone completely agrees that all Federal resources should be invested in Groton, Connecticut.  You knew that was the best decision.  Who am I supposed to vote for to make sure this happens?

Democracy is premised on entertaining and making compromises.  Give a little, get a little.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I experienced this when a child and young adult in a small town in New England.  When everybody insists on totally winning, everybody totally loses.  All that results is frustration and outrage, and increasingly violence.  Democracy is at risk.

Appealing to Voters

Quite simplistically, assume that there are two populations of voters:

  • X: A population that can easily be manipulated in terms of values, concerns, perceptions and decisions about consumption, health, education, and votes.
  • Y: A population that reflects on what is knowable, explainable, and predictive, consciously deciding what is believable and the consequences for decision making.

How can one appeal to these two populations?

With effective messaging, one can convince X to buy marginally effective drugs, scam insurance, and timeshare condos, as well as avoid vaccines, embrace censoring of education, and perhaps even vote for white supremacists. This messaging need not result in particular outcomes. It just needs to be compelling.

Y requires believable evidence, which of course requires understanding what affects believability. Data, logic, analysis and records of past successes are key elements of convincing Y to support initiatives. The intellectual credibility of those advocating initiatives is also important.

How might strategies for X and Y interact? This question is particularly important since one cannot know whether particular individuals are in one group or the other. Thus, one would prefer that any strategies do not antagonize either group.

It would seem that a centrist strategy might attract enough Xs and Ys to prevail. Yet, this might lead to minimal support as everybody is disappointed. Of course, a multi-faceted strategy might offer everybody something they want.  This possibility depends on the distance between the centroids of the positions of X and Y. The distance may be so great to stymie any chance of compromise.

Another possibility is to employ completely different channels to reach X and Y. With access to individuals’ social media activities and preferences, ads and other promotions can be tailored to each individual. Thus, the ad segments of each program can be tailored to each viewer. For example, environmentalists will see pro-climate ads while conservatives will see pro-fossil fuel ads.

Political ads will promise exactly what the individual viewer wants. Across all viewers, candidates will be pro and con on everything. The candidates will have no real intentions. They do not intend to deliver anything.  They are just getting each individual voter to buy into the story tailored to them.  Their goal, quite simply, is power.

So, everybody votes for candidates seemingly promising exactly what they want, but those elected renege on all promises. Next, there are two years of mischief, trading votes and patronage for campaign contributions and various boondoggles. Two years later we repeat the same charade.

This is not a recipe for progress.  Nothing happens except selected folks get to feed at the government trough.  Instead, we need to creatively address the realities of populations X and Y.  We need mechanisms that foster imaginative compromises.  That is an agenda for a later post.

Winning Ways

What do these three practices have in common?

  • Selling exorbitantly-priced drugs that provide no relative health benefits, but one cannot buy particular patented drugs and devices from other suppliers
  • Producing very expensive weapon systems that may no longer be needed, but one cannot buy these weapon systems and spare parts from other suppliers
  • One cannot access public services (education, health, energy, security) from other federal, state or local governments

All three provide economic returns to the providers of products and services, but not to the consumers of these offerings.  The value propositions are one sided.  How, then, are they sustained?  Armies of lobbyists assure these cash flows are not disrupted.

Market-based competition does not work when providers hold monopolies, either literally or effectively. When performance information is lacking, or at least hidden, consumers have no way of assessing value. They also may or may not have any insights into or influence on pricing.

These three ecosystems are laced with rice bowls in terms of revenues, profits, executive salaries and bonuses, jobs and paychecks. Any attempts to change the status quo will meet fierce resistance, facilitated by lobbying, gifts, and campaign contributions.

This is not an indictment of all industry. Auto manufacturers, for example, compete with each other to sell cars and trucks. Appliance manufacturers do as well. Competition among digital devices providers gives consumers choices, as does competition among entertainment providers. Almost everything in grocery stores involves competing offerings.

Competition leads to more choices, with better benefits and lower prices — at least relative to the benefits received. Monopolies, legal or effective, lead to less choice, poorer performance, and higher prices.  Yet, an overarching goal of many businesses to achieve monopoly positions.

Why would consumers put up with such situations? Why would consumers seek Adulheim, an Alzheimer’s drug with no proven benefits and an annual cost of $56,000? First of all, Medicare is paying, not consumers. Yet, everyone’s Medicare premium will substantially increase to cover these costs for a relatively small population of patients.

More significant, families of those suffering from Alzheimer’s are desperate for anything that might help. They believe pharma’s claims because they want these claims to be true. So, perceived positive impacts at zero cost trump any other logic.

It can easily be argued that health can be dramatically improved by lifestyle changes in terms of diet, exercise, etc. This is a lot of work compared to taking very expensive drugs for which you pay nearly zero. The fact that these drugs provide minimal, if any, health benefits is not apparent until it is too late.

Of course, buying healthcare and education, and perhaps even weapon systems, are seldom prone to calm, rational analyses.  Behavioral and social values, concerns, and perceptions dominate.  Worries and fears play central roles.  Hidden persuaders, vis-a-vis Vance Packard, take advantage of these forces.

Service Hall of Shame — Consumer Cellular

Consumer Cellular focuses on mobile phone services for older adults who do not use their phones for streaming services. The advertised monthly fees are much lower since the bandwidth utilized is much less.

Consumer Cellular is collocated with Target in their electronics department. According to the Consumer Cellular website, the only store in DC providing iPhones is in Columbia Heights — 90 minutes away for me via bus and subway.

Upon arriving, I found that the Consumer Cellular outlet at Target has not been staffed for 3 months, despite their website telling me that I could get the phone that day. The website is obviously very much out of date.

What did I learn? Quite simply, I cannot trust Consumer Cellular. How will they handle any other problems that I encounter? I cannot and should not count on them. I will stick with the more expensive, but much more reliable service.

I will certainly let my friends and colleagues know about this, as many were wondering what I would find with Consumer Cellular. This is a terrible outcome for a business specializing in providing service to older adults.

Good deals are only “good” when high quality products and services are provided at acceptable prices. High prices and poor service are the worst combination, but they persist, especially in industries where players have effective monopolies, e.g., airlines, pharma, and utilities.

Manipulation

I find it very interesting how easily people are convinced to behave in ways in conflict with their own self interests.  Advertisements for low-quality junk foods and vehicles that really will not increase your sex appeal are good examples.

Advertisements for prescription drugs that may benefit a few, but are not beneficial for most people are a compelling instance.  You are supposed to run to your physician and request a prescription, for which he or she will get a commission.  That’s how oxycontin became pervasive.

Political advertisements are equally misleading and harming.  Some blurbs argue that government is against you.  Yet, 50% of the federal budget is spent on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  What percentage of Americans would vote to eliminate these programs, as well as funds spent on medical research and education?

Firms such as Cambridge Analytica upped the ante.  They used personal information from Facebook to create political ads targeted to individual people.  These people would learn that specific political candidates agreed with them – on everything!  How could you not vote for them? 

The fact that these ads were totally lies is fully protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution.  These ads did not force you to vote in one way or another, just as the ads for questionable prescription drugs do not force you to take these drugs.  Let the buyer beware.  It is up to you to avoid being manipulated.

How does this work for older adults, or perhaps disabled adults, all of whom are dependent on mobility and other services to travel to and from work or to age at home rather than in institutional residences.  Apparently, the marketplace is free to manipulate and motivate them to act not in their best interests.  Vested interests and their profits are fully protected. 

We have a free market economy totally focused on maximizing investors’ returns.  Consumers need to be aware of and avoid manipulation.  This includes doing research using other sources of information to assure claims by pharma, politicians, etc. are valid.  Elderly folks, for instance, should be researching the efficacy of Alzheimer’s drugs.  Sounds ridiculous, I know, but that is what beware buyers are supposed to do.

You might think that some combination of patients’ physicians, the FDA, et al. could handle this.  Abramson in Sickening: How Big Pharma Broke American Health Care and How We Can Repair It. (Mariner, 2022) explains why these professionals are unprepared and prohibited from doing this.  I’ll return to this next week.

Hopeless Causes

I have been wondering about change initiatives that are hopeless in the sense that change is virtually impossible.  What do I mean by “impossible”?  Theoretical impossibility is quite rare.  Planes that fly faster than the speed of light and the elimination of death and all taxes are good examples.  Most would agree on the impossibility of such outcomes.

My perspective is much more pragmatic.  What types on initiatives simply will not succeed in the next decade or two?  What kinds of outcomes am I unlikely to be alive to experience?  I am very skeptical of the possibility of all vehicles becoming driverless unless we reconceptualize the notion of “driving.”  I am similarly skeptical of all energy coming from renewable sources unless nuclear energy remains viable.

Yet, these are mostly technology challenges interwoven with economic and societal phenomena.  What about phenomena that are predominantly organizational?  I have long argued that the overarching goal of society should be creating and sustaining a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global market place.  Is this possible?

This would require a major reallocation of resources away from unproductive, vested interests.  These interests would bring enormous human and financial resources to bear to thwart such changes.  Such change initiatives occasionally succeed, e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but it requires alignment of political, economic, and social forces – and very strong leadership.

How might we convince people to ignore misinformation and disinformation sources that are prevalent on social media?  These information sources result, for example, in people accepting and following ill-founded medical advice and, in many cases, killing themselves.  The Supreme Court has ruled that people and organizations cannot be prevented from such deception and outright lying.  The first amendment of the Constitution protects them.

The solution would seem to be a mixture of authoritative sources and education to access and utilize these sources.  Yet, these possibilities can be thwarted by people’s strong inclinations to believe misinformation and disinformation, indeed their inclinations to spread untruths much faster and more broadly then truths.  Education to overcome these inclinations would seem, at best, to be a decades-long initiative.

I engage in seemingly endless meetings where the agendas are dominated by discussions of initiatives to “fix” the types of problems outlined here.  My sense is that success, if at all possible, will require many decades of concerted commitments and investments, careful definitions and measurements of success, and a strongly shared societal sense of who we want to become.  

Standards

I recently read Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (Norton, 2022).  He provides a wonderful chronicle of the emergence of various common elements of books, and a glimpse into the notion of standards.

Manuscripts were originally written in scrolls, so just one very long page.  Titles of scrolls did not emerge for quite some time.  The idea of chapters or sections came later, followed by the notion of a table of contents.  With one very long page, the construct of page numbers was not meaningful.

Concordances — an alphabetical list of the principal words used in a manuscript – emerged several centuries ago, after the reluctance to employ alphabetical orders subsided.  This was followed by indexes, alphabetical lists of the form: subject, page numbers.  The idea of a card catalog in libraries came much later.

It struck me that the idea and form of an index, and all its forerunners, is an example of a standard that eases access to the knowledge in books.  Of course, it would not be very useful if the notion of page numbers had not earlier been conceived.  So, the evolution of “book technologies” included many inventions.

This got me thinking about other “standards” that we now take for granted.  Interchangeable parts are key to manufacturing and maintaining engineered systems.  This standard started when Eli Whitney built a firearms factory near New Haven in 1798. The muskets his workmen made by methods comparable to those of modern mass industrial production were the first to have standardized, interchangeable parts.

Railway gauges — the distance between rails — are 4 feet 8.5 inches, originated with George Stephenson’s pioneer Liverpool & Manchester line in 1829.  By June 1886, all major railroads in North America, an estimated 11,500 miles, were using the same standard gauge. Consequently, train engines and cars could move from one railroad to another.  This gauge, by the way, was derived from the distance between horse-drawn carriage wheels in England.

There are two standards for electricity.  Canada, Mexico and the United States all use a 110 volt, 60 hertz electrical system, which shares the same physical connectors. Most of Africa, Asia and Europe use a 220 volt, 50 hertz electrical system, with a variety of differing physical connectors.  Consequently, the portable electrical devices you buy in the US, for example, do not work in Europe without a transformer. 

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Boiler & Pressure Vessel Code is a standard that regulates the design and construction of boilers and pressure vessels.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers maintains the IEEE 802.11 standard, popularly known as WiFi, that specifies the architecture and specifications of wireless LANs.

There are also government-mandated standards.  The Occupational Safety & Health Administrations provides a set of safety standards.  The Federal Aviation Administration promotes safe air transportation by setting the standards for certification and oversight of airmen, air operators, air agencies, and designees.

Standards make things work better, e.g., indexes for accessing published information.  Standards make things work together, e.g., mechanical parts and electricity.  Standards make sure things do not hurt us, e.g., safety and flight standards.  Overall, standards play a key role in translating technological inventions into market innovations.

Leaders of Change

Do the times make leaders or do leaders make the times?  I have long thought that great leaders understand the times and determine how to take advantage of them.  More specifically, I think many great leaders have had a naturalistic orientation to understanding their worlds in terms of what is achievable, in what time frames, and with what nudges.  They lead change at a particular period of time because they understand that period of time and how change can be facilitated.

The ascent of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination marked the definitive arrival of the Progressive Era.  The Progressives advocated democratic reforms and greater governmental regulation of the economy to temper the capitalistic excesses of the Gilded Age. Roosevelt championed his “Square Deal” domestic policies, promising the average citizen fairness, breaking of trusts, regulation of railroads, and pure food and drugs (Morris, 2001).

Roosevelt in WWII (Kershaw, 2007) carefully sensed the limited appetite of the American public for joining the Allies fighting the Axis.  For example, The Lend-Lease Act enabled the U.S. government to lend or lease (rather than sell) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Under this policy, the United States was able to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II while still remaining officially neutral in the conflict. Most importantly, passage of the Lend-Lease Act enabled a struggling Great Britain to continue fighting against Germany virtually on its own until the United States entered World War II late in 1941.  The slower democratic process enabled many voices to be heard and better informed judgments to be made by Churchill and Roosevelt. 

Lincoln in the Civil War (Goodwin, 2006) informed his chief advisors and cabinet (July 22, 1862) that he intended to issue a proclamation to free enslaved people, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement — September 22, 1862, five days after thwarting Lee at Antietam.  Emancipation would redefine the Civil War, turning it from a struggle to preserve the Union to one focused on ending slavery.  This set a decisive course for how the nation would be reshaped after that historic conflict.

Ghandi pursued independence of India over decades.  Gandhi’s leadership role was extremely complex. Convinced that violence only begets violence, he began practicing passive resistance. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader that brought one of the world’s most powerful nations to its knees by using peace, love and integrity as his method for change.  Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued a similar strategy, which required at least as much patience and is ongoing.

Of course, not all leaders similarly exploit their understanding of the times.  Leaders such as Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin, and Stalin read the “tea leaves” and played to frustration, anger, etc., also including repression and violence.  Trump tried to emulate them with notable, but thus far limited success.  So, successfully leading change does not always imply that changes are positive.  Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and Putin’s atrocities can be the outcomes.

This begs the question of how to understand the drivers of change and possible outcomes.  Are shared aspirations and visions, as well as trust and commitment driving change?  Or, are anger, resentments, and tribal identities the drivers?  The issues involve not only understanding these distinctions, but understanding processes to support the former and mitigate the latter.

References

Goodwin, D.K. (2006). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kershaw, I. (2007). Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941. New York: Penguin.

Morris, E. (2001). The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Random House.

Strategies That Make a Difference

I have worked with over 100 enterprises, many large technology-based companies, quite a few government agencies, and many smaller entrepreneurial endeavors.  The large enterprises pose particular challenges.  This is due to the simple fact that they became large because of successful visions, strategies, and plans, and particularly determined execution.

My encounters with executives in these enterprises was typically driven by their concerns with experienced or anticipated value deficiencies.  They could see, or possibly had experienced, challenges from existing or new competitors, perhaps with new technologies and different value propositions.  They wanted my help to devise strategies and plans for countering these threats.

A central challenge was determining how these executives perceived their situations and alternative courses of action.  I wrote a couple of books, one an award winner, about how enterprises can deceive themselves and suffer from strategic delusions about who they are – now – and what options they realistically have.  A more recent book addressed how several well-known corporations presided over their own demise.

My experiences with government agencies presented several other challenges.  Money was seldom a particular challenge, nor was executive talent.  The overwhelming barrier to change was the status quo, with many political, economic, and social forces determined to not upset existing “rice bowls.”  There were typically strong forces articulating the importance of change, while systematically thwarting it.

The result is very talented people with substantial resources entertaining many inventive and possibly innovative ideas, but being stymied by the dreadnaught of the status quo.  Consequently, we published many research articles and well-received books, but actually informed and stimulated very little fundamental change in government.  In fact, most of our inventions became market innovations in non-governmental segments of the economy.

Pursuing the other side of the strategy coin, when does strategy advice tend to not make a difference?

  • When there are no “market forces” that make the status quo untenable.
  • When key stakeholders simply do not believe that change is needed.
  • When organizational policies and procedures limit the extent of changes.
  • When key stakeholders thwart initiatives that threaten their rice bowls.

I have worked with several companies where these hurdles prevented progress.  In contrast, all the government agencies with whom I have worked have strongly exhibited these phenomena.  Why is this the case and are there ways to mitigate these hurdles?  Let’s explore the possibilities.

What are the equivalent of market forces for a government agency?  Governments surely have competitors — economically, politically, and militarily.  It is often difficult, however, to think clearly about the nature of the competition.  If an adversary is investing in a new technological capability, for example, how will this affect our competition with this adversary?  Will their capabilities be faster, cheaper and perform better than ours?  Perhaps the answer depends on the competitive context.  How real and predictable is that context?

Does the government agency, e.g., defense, energy, homeland security, need to change to address these new capabilities?  Are the obsolete older capabilities mothballed or eliminated?  Does this free up resources – human and financial – to invest in the new capabilities?  If not, what is the source of new resources?  Or, does the resource pool have to continually increase to support ever-increasing layers of capabilities?

Do the policies and procedures of the government agency support sustaining existing entitlements rather than encouraging invention and innovation.  There are typically numerous government organizations, facilities, employees and a wealth of support contractors.  Unlike industry where capacities can be scaled up or down depending on market situations, government commitments tend to be sustained independent of projected needs for these capacities.

In the rare circumstances where significant redeployment of resources is widely acceptable, key stakeholders will do their best to thwart initiatives that threaten their rice bowls.  Investments in lobbying efforts to influence Congress can lead to trades of votes for sustainment of  threatened ice bowls.  Industry is not immune to such efforts, but they seldom dominate strategies, plans, and allocations of resources.

So, is strategic thinking and acting impossible for government agencies?  Strategic thinking is common and often quite insightful.  Strategic acting is quite rare due to the phenomena outlined above.  However, it is not impossible.  It requires very strong, determined leadership that can build coalitions across constituencies, protect needed resources, and sustain broad commitments to success.  These ingredients are also important in industry, but they are not as essential as in government.

Societal Allocation of Resources

With the proposed FY 2023 federal budget, government expenditures will grow to roughly 23% of the $26 trillion US Gross Domestic Product. Even with the proposed substantial annual tax increases on high-earners’ incomes, the offsetting tax revenues are insufficient to avoid a perpetual trillion dollar deficit each year, amounting to 5% of US GDP. This will drive the current $26 trillion of US National Debt to $40 trillion by 2030 or so, amounting to well over 100% of US GDP. 

The higher a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio climbs, the higher its risk of default becomes.  The US ratio is among the highest of OECD countries, exceeded by only Japan, Greece, and Italy.  A ratio over 100% indicates that a country may have difficulty paying its debts.  This may lead to reluctance among investors and their abandoning dependence on the dollar.

How is the government budget spent.  Considering the $7 trillion budget, with $4 trillion revenues, in FY 2021, the allocation was as follows.

  • Income supplements 24%
  • Healthcare 12%
  • Social Security 17%
  • Defense 11%
  • Medicare 10%
  • Interest 5%
  • Commerce & housing 4%
  • Education, training, & social services 4%
  • General government 4%
  • Veterans benefits & services 3%

Note that income supplements include stimulus payments in response to the coronavirus and child tax credits

Is this an appropriate allocation of societal resources?  Roughly half goes to people who are not prepared to fend for themselves.  The issue is not their preparation, or lack there of, but the fact that expenses have completely outstripped peoples’ abilities to pay.  It seems to me that too many people are making too much money for providing services that are prohibitively costly.

About one third goes to services provided by federal agencies.  Are those services worth the price?  There is much variation here, but non-defense is overshadowed by defense.  It is difficult to argue that leading-edge defense capabilities are not critical.  However, continuing to acquire yesterday’s capabilities supported by Congressionally mandated expenditures are very much of questionable value.

Is society seeing good returns on its investments?  I think the answer is a resounding, “No,” unless we view a primary purpose of government to be redistribution of incomes to the less fortunate and those at the head of the line for government contracts.  We are spending enormous amounts to sustain “rice bowls,” many of which are no longer warranted.  We need to pay much more attention to where societal investments make sense.  We all need to be much more savvy investors in the future of our society.

Consider how we got into this situation.  I saw in a recent commentary that the projected NIH budget includes a 0.6% increase. The commentators said that this was “grossly insufficient funding.”  In contrast, the President’s budget proposes strong increases to the budgets of CDC (27%), FDA (11 %), and NSF (19%).  What is the “right” amount for the NIH budget?  Would 50%, 100%, or 200% increases be sufficient?  Might that warrant substantial decreases of the budgets for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?  The evidence base for such advocacy is often slight at best.  It is all just pontifications.

At an extreme, I have encountered arguments that the portion of the Federal budget focused on disabilities should be focused on improving wheelchairs, nothing else.  No prosthetics, training, job aids, etc.  I confronted those advocating this position saying, “This is a ridiculous position.  No one will ever agree to this.”  Their response was, “We know it is ridiculous, but we always get a bit more when we take an extreme position.”  The difficulty, of course, is that most advocacy groups do this. 

Advocacy determines the federal budget, driven by lobbyists, campaign contributions, and ultimately voters.  One might think that tradeoffs are determined by, for example, the marginal returns of an additional dollar spent on health, education, or defense.  One might expect attractive returns on investments from long-term savings due to near-term expenditures.  However, the budget process is more like horse trading – really vote trading — than careful, broadly based analysis.

Everyone wins a little and loses a little in this process, but the winnings are sufficient for Members of Congress to be reelected in their district or state.  Completely reasonable and economically attractive proposals disappear either because they threaten rice bowls or the opposition does not want the proponents to gain political credit for proposing and orchestrating the idea to fruition.

How might this dilemma be addressed?   Singapore provides a compelling example of a professionally managed economy and country.  Top leadership has impressive credentials and experience – and is very well compensated.  Our federalist traditions would not support this.  Every state, indeed every city council and school board, can independently make its own rules.  Any citizen, regardless of expertise, can be elected to serve. 

Change will have to be more subtle and incremental.  The ethic has to evolve from everyone scrambling to get their piece of the pie, to a public consciousness focused on performance, quality, and equity.  The ingredients for this sentiment are occasionally apparent, but far from pervasive.  My guess is that forces such as the pandemic, war in Ukraine, and the impending climate crisis will prompt important dialogues about performance, quality, and equity, and slowly enable embracing this sentiment.

The Election Follies

Now that Members of Congress no longer have legislative responsibilities, they have become very creative in how they pursue reelection.  Some play it straight in the sense that they pretend to be serious about eliminating immigration, deporting anyone in the US whose family has been here less than three generations, and gutting K-12 curricula to guarantee the targeted 100% high school graduation rates.

Other Members act like standup comedians, rock stars, and retired sports legends.  Their goal is to be highly entertaining, attract loyal fans, and convince sponsors to invest in their promotional productions.  Few people believe what they advocate, but many people enjoy the farce.  It quickly has become a pastime, like watching Roadrunner or Scooby-Doo cartoons.

To the extent that they report on this at all, the media refer to it as the Election Follies.  Everyone pokes fun at Members’ charades and pretense.  The American public perceives Members to be charlatans and, more simply, jerks.  The population aspiring to be politicians and Members has rapidly diminished.  Not many people want to be seen as village idiots.

In contrast, interest in the real work of government has soared.  Professional schools, for example in public policy, are seeing numbers of applicants rapidly grow.  Young people do not want to play the game of politics.  They want to gain the requisite knowledge and skills to really contribute to society.  They have no interest in the Election Follies as it seems to be a vestige of old-time corruption and chicanery.

It has become increasingly difficult to get qualified candidates to run for Congress.  The incumbents hold onto their seats in the House and Senate.  The average age of Members is increasing by one year per year.  The average age now exceeds 80 and is headed to 90.  Wheelchairs are coming to predominate the House and Senate chambers.  Great attention is devoted to nonsense, for example, the ability of the former Senate Majority Leader to whistle God Bless America. 

In parallel the professional ranks of Federal and State government are becoming increasingly well-educated and motivated to make a difference.  Congress has readily agreed to be a sideshow of incompetents and imposters.  The executive and judicial branches of government have completely displaced the legislative branch due to their complete unwillingness to pursue anything legislative. 

This dilemma has led to a new Continental Congress to reset the balance among the three branches of government.  The Congress convened in Philadelphia in Carpenters’ Hall, the site of the 1774 First Continental Congress.  The delegates quickly agreed on the roots of the problem. 

Elections have been increasingly determined by money, which must be raised privately.  If private campaign contributions were banned, Members’ time would not be dominated by fund raising.  Lobbyists would lose the leverage they gain via campaign contributions.  Legislation would be driven by considerations of the public good, not corporate coffers.

Public financing of elections has quickly become a popular cause on both sides of the aisle.  The eventual Public Financing Act immediately has another effect.  All candidates have the same campaign budgets.  Consequently, media blitzes disappear.  All candidates get their allotted media times.  More attention is paid to articulating political positions rather than spewing misinformation and disinformation.  Over time, candidates are coming to once again being judged on legislative abilities.  Normalcy seems to be slowly returning.

Running for Election

Members of Congress have only one objective – getting reelected.  Their every utterance is focused on appealing to the voters that can get them through the primaries, if necessary, and winning in the general elections.  Many also have aspirations for higher offices.  Most have absolutely no interest in policy discussions and debates.  They have concluded that voters have little, if any, interest in this.

In an earlier post, quite some time ago, I proposed an obvious solution to reluctant legislators.  Members of Congress should devote all their energies to reelection and all other responsibilities should be eliminated.  They would be prohibited from engaging in legislation, which would be handled by well-educated, highly motivated, and well compensated professionals, whose accomplishments would determine continued employment.

Protected by the 1st Amendment, Members of Congress can articulate and support virtually anything.  They can be the political equivalent of standup comedians.  Their “base,” of whatever persuasion, could attend their rallies, buy their paraphernalia, and feel supported by their media presence.  Members of Congress would have absolutely no impact on the country other than to make their supporters feel heard.

Beyond being American citizens, there would be no requirements in terms of education and competencies to serve as a Member of Congress.  Other than being capable of bluster and bombast, as recently demonstrated by Members representing Colorado, Georgia, Missouri and Texas, fundraising and campaigning for reelection would be core competencies. 

The mainstream media would likely abandon following Members’ rants.  New Internet outlets, perhaps similar to YouTube, would emerge to provide access to their tirades.  User-defined profiles would enable their only seeing pieces that support their existing beliefs, leading many users to perceive that every Member agrees with them.  They would get the promises they seek, perhaps forgetting the impotence of Members.

It is reasonable to project that this change will eventually dramatically increase people’s confidence in government.  Professionally managed government would invest in health, education, energy, etc.  The trains would run on time.  Potholes would be fixed and garbage collected.  In the background, Members would rant, raise money, and run for reelection, continually refining the three Rs of politics.

Service Hall of Shame – Uber

Roughly a year ago, I profiled five companies that provide great service, for example, Kaiser Permanente and USAA.  This post addresses the flip side – the Service Hall of Shame.  Today’s inductee is Uber.  I have compiled ten reasons for their selection, all experienced in just two days.

Let’s start with driver deficiencies.  Here are two days of experiences:

  • Driver not knowing local geography and relying on Uber’s very misleading app
  • Driver ignoring passenger location messages – “I never look at them.”
  • Driver refusing to travel one block from pickup point – in the rain
  • Driver claiming passenger not wearing mask – despite never seeing passenger
  • Driver requesting a 30 minute delay to get gas and arriving 2 hours later

These deficiencies dovetail with Uber’s poor service delivery over the same two days:

  • Uber app not knowing my location, despite traveling frequently from same address.
  • Uber app not allowing cancellation of trip when driver searched for gas
  • Uber penalizing passenger when driver never arrived
  • Uber penalizing passenger for not wearing mask when driver never arrived
  • Uber app and website not providing a mechanism for customer feedback

It is very clear that Uber has no interest in customers’ experiences.  Better service would warrant greater customer loyalty, even with somewhat higher prices, but Uber apparently does not think this way.  They only increase prices, sometimes by factors of 2 to 5, when they have customers trapped by traffic jams or bad weather.  Revenue maximization is their only goal.  This may work until a truly customer-oriented provider emerges.  Then all Uber will have is their Hall of Shame plaque.

Four Books I Highly Recommend

The time that I can devote to reading has soared over the past two years.  I spend much less time getting to and from meetings – typically zero.  Here are my four favorite books of the past two months.  I highly recommend them.

Top of the list is Andy Norman’s Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think (Harper, 2021).  How can we cope with misinformation and disinformation about politics, health, etc.?  Building on the thoughts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume and, more recently, William James and C.S. Peirce, he crafts a philosophical and pragmatic prescription for cognitive inoculation.  Reading his book feels like taking a graduate course from a compelling instructor.  I hope I passed.

Next is Philipp Dettmer’s Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021).  This is an intriguing precursor to Norman’s treatise.  Why not understand the human’s physical immune system before wrestling with mental immunity?  He provides a fascinating tour.  This very thorough book provides another graduate course from a compelling instructor.

Arthur Brooks provides another wonderful piece to the mini curriculum with From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (Penguin, 2022).  As our fluid intelligence wanes with age, our crystallized intelligence continues to grow.  Our former strengths are replaced by new strengths that can enable compelling new approaches to contributing to society, with significant less emphasis on resumes and bank accounts.

Rounding out the curriculum is Ro Khanna’s Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us (Simon & Schuster, 2022).  Khanna, a Member of Congress from Silicon Valley, addresses ways in which digital technologies can economically and socially benefit everyone, ranging from the skilled technical workforce to technology wizards and entrepreneurs.  I found that I was particularly interested in how a Member of Congress thinks these ideas could be successfully pursued and achieved.

Reading these four books can, in effect, provide you a graduate certificate in understanding and appreciating several of the profound challenges we all face today, and how new ways of thinking can enable tractable solutions to these problems.  I truly appreciate the fact that remote working provided me the time to immerse myself in these wonderful works and, albeit at a distance, get to know these insightful authors.

The Many Cultures of Academia

Recent experiences have caused me to think about contrasts among science, technology, business and policy programs in academia.  I have intensely interacted with these programs at over 50 universities in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.  My sense is that academia is an amalgam of many intellectual cultures, which do not dovetail nicely into one culture.  Academic disciplines share cafeterias and parking lots, but not values.

My career has been in science and technology.  I have served on the faculties of several top engineering programs, and been on advisory boards of many top programs.  My forays into science have primarily been in computer science and medicine, all at top programs.  The values of engineering and science differ a bit, but not compared to the difference with other professional domains.

I have interacted, sometimes in depth, with several top business schools.  MBA programs have in recent years dominated.  To this end, an easily digestible curriculum that is combined with great placement services, along with excellent lecturers, enabled by substantial tuitions, seem to be the elements of success.  Of late, data analytics has roared to center stage, requiring serious attention to analytical competencies.

I have been involved in public policy programs at several top programs.  These programs tend to offer a blend of government, economics, education, psychology, and sociology.  Masters of Public Policy degrees are pursued by those seeking to develop their talents for employment in public-private ecosystems.  I think policy is representative of behavioral and social sciences, broadly defined in include, for example, economics and public sector finances.

I hasten to note that I have ignored another prominent culture – law.  It is the fifth pillar of the typical cohort of professional degrees – medicine, law, business, policy and engineering.  However, I have not had sufficient exposure to law programs to be able to opine on them. 

Table 1 summarizes key contrasts among the academic disciplines thus far discussed.  These contrasts lead to further distinctions.  Teaching can be seen as a process of imparting knowledge versus mentoring competencies.  For the former, a faculty member serves as a Sage on Stage, while the latter leads to a faculty member being a Guide on the Side.

Sages need to pursue research that fosters their personal credentials.  Guides see research as being central to mentoring students towards professional success.  Professional Masters degree programs charge student premium tuitions.  Research-oriented graduate programs provide student stipends and tuition to join research teams.  For the former, investments and operational costs are funded by tuition revenues.  For the latter, resources are secured entrepreneurially.

These contrasts and distinctions are reinforced by several behavioral and social phenomena:

  • Faculty members tend to embrace the cultural values they experienced as graduate students, particularly if their graduate studies were successful
  • Faculty members tend to strongly extoll the values that earned them promotions, tenure, and coveted external rewards
  • Faculty members tend to question, and perhaps dismiss, people who do not embrace and advance the values they have embraced and extolled
  • These proclivities of faculty members are similar to those of religious clergy, athletic coaches, military veterans, and serious hobbyists

Thus, one cannot characterize the academic culture.  The differences among disciplines are enormous, ranging from how education is designed and delivered, how research is pursued and rewarded, and how resources are secured and managed.  Forays into any particular academic discipline is best conducted after gaining an understanding of the underlying cultural values of that discipline.  In a recent discussion during a planning meeting of another discipline, I commented to a colleague, “I feel like Margaret Mead in Samoa.”

 Science (Med. & Comp Sci)Technology (Engineering)Business (MBA Programs)Policy  (MPP Programs)
Sources of FundsGrants, Which Cover Stipends & TuitionsGrants & Contracts, Which Cover Stipends & TuitionsPremium Tuitions, Minimal Grants & ContractsPremium Tuitions, Minimal Grants & Contracts
Focus of  Graduate EducationResearch, Requisite Methods & ToolsResearch & Design, Requisite Methods & ToolsClassroom Lectures, Case Studies & ProjectsClassroom Lectures, Case Studies & Projects
Disciplinary RelationshipsImportant, But Not DominantImportant, But Not DominantVery Important & DominantVery Important & Dominant
Domain RelationshipsVery Important for Practice ImpactVery Important for Domain ImpactSomewhat ImportantSomewhat Important
Promotion & Tenure CriteriaArticles, Citations, PhD Graduates, Practice ImpactArticles, Citations, PhD Graduates, Domain ImpactArticles, Citations, Student RatingsBooks, Reviews, Media Quotes
Role of Students in Research OutcomesAbsolutely Central Contributors, Coauthors on Key PublicationsAbsolutely Central Contributors, Coauthors on Key PublicationsLimited Role of Students in Faculty Pursuit of PublicationsLimited Role of Students in Faculty Pursuit of Publications

Table 1. Key Contrasts Among Academic Disciplines

Society’s Perfect Storm

Three weather fronts collided off the New England coast in 1991 – and the subsequent movie in 2000.  The Gloucester fishing boat Andrea Gail tried to endure but could not survive the onslaught.  Everyone was lost.

We have as a society encountered a collision of “fronts” that have left us reeling.  The US mortgage crisis of 2007-08 and its aftermath has been characterized as a perfect storm.  The opioid epidemic started in the 1990s, accelerated in 2010, and continues unabated.  The coronavirus pandemic emerged in 2020 and continues as an endemic. 

In parallel, climate change, global warming, and its impacts are rolling along.  There will be no vaccine for climate change.  Storms, fires, and sea level rise will take their tolls, repeatedly if we do not mitigate the risks and the outcomes. 

In the background is the “infodemic” – social media has fueled a blitz of misinformation and disinformation, catering to “tribal” interests and providing a base for white supremacist and racist activists.  All of this has been playing out in the midst of increasing economic inequality, for everyone.  Such inequality is exacerbated by all of the above.

How should we think about this?  What should we do?  If we were “all in the same boat,” we might be able to work together to find a way forward.  But, we are in multiple boats headed in different directions, and some boats want to destroy others.  Perhaps we can work out a truce, but who is “we” and why would “they” listen?  Perhaps we could look to the United Nations as a model and call ourselves the United States.  But we have already done that, have we not?

Perhaps Congress could move beyond carving up the Federal pie and pay attention to society’s perfect storm.  How do get everyone healthy, educated, employed, and involved?  How can we best deal collectively with the many challenges outlined earlier?  How can we think collectively, not just individually.

This is a major challenge in itself.  Alexis de Tocqueville argued individualism, if interpreted as a sort of selfish focus on oneself and one’s own interests (as opposed to a recognition of individual rights and responsibilities) can easily descend into a type of egoism that could destroy civil society — and therefore the fundamental ability of a democracy to function.

How can we bridge the gap?  We might convene the equivalent of a Continental Congress to devise agreed upon principles to move forward.  This approach fits      amidst a spectrum ranging from Wild West to authoritarian rule.  In the Wild West, concealed carry weapons and stand your ground laws are the norm.  Disputes and disagreements are resolved by armed violence.  Traditional law is marginalized.

The authoritarian end of the spectrum involves state control of everything.  You obey authority or you disappear. Misinformation and disinformation are controlled by the state.  What you can know and do are totally prescribed.  If a vaccine is deemed to be warranted, everyone will be vaccinated or incarcerated.  If messaging conflicts with this policy, the messengers will be incarcerated.

Ideally, there is a middle ground on this spectrum — democracy — that balances individual rights and responsibilities.  In the US, the 1st Amendment guarantees free speech, and the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.  Can one bear arms to defend one’s rights to free speech?  Yes, legal experts say that there is no 1st Amendment right to attend a gun-free protest.  Further, in several states, if you feel threatened, you can stand your ground and shoot people whose stated positions threaten your comfort.

This situation obviously needs remediation.  The solution, it seems to many people, is an explicit balance of rights and responsibilities that everyone understands, explicitly agrees with and practices.  This requires that everyone understands civics.  However, according to the Brookings Institution, “Despite the fact that the core of our education system was built upon the belief that schooling institutions have  a central role to play in preparing American youth to be civically engaged, this goal has been pushed to the margins over time as other educational objectives have moved to the forefront.”  Reading, math, and science are important, but they are not the only important objectives.

Innovation in Technology & Art

My intellectual path for well over five decades has been dominated by science and technology, influenced along the way by behavioral and social sciences, and more recently economics, politics and history.  Thus, I have become increasingly interdisciplinary.  However, the epistemological threads have all been dominated by the idea of evidence-based reasoning.

What about the musical and visual arts, and other forms of artistic expression?  As a baseline for comparison, consider innovation in technology.  Trends in technology change shape as the technology matures to enables market innovations.  Gartner’s hype cycle model exhibits an interesting shape change in terms of expectations rather than adoptions. Clearly, there is not always a linear path from idea to R&D to innovation.  Of course, hype cycles are recent formulations.  Looking back to the mid 1800s, I could find no published hype cycles for electricity or indoor plumbing.

Let’s move from technology to art.  Are there hype cycles for visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture), literature (fiction, non-fiction), performing arts (dance, improv, opera, symphony, theatre), and culinary arts?  It is difficult to imagine anticipating the conceptual innovations of Picasso, Matisse or Warhol, or the experimental innovations of Mondrian, Kandinsky, or Pollack (Galenson, 2006).  It is extremely unlikely that the usually prescient projections of The Economist would have heralded these innovations, or that Gartner would publish hype cycles for art.

Innovation in art differs from innovation in technology (Borstlap, 2016).  Only occasionally do these innovations involve technology adoption, e.g., materials or techniques. Further, adoption does not mean that eventually everybody embraces it. For instance, after Cubism emerged in 1907-11, all the other artists did not become Cubists.

Orchestras that focused on Baroque music, e.g., Bach, in the 17th century did not anticipate subsequent Classical music, e.g., Mozart, and later yet Romantic music, e.g., Chopin.  There were no European fan magazines heralding the possibilities of these innovations. Yet, all three musical forms have endured as has indoor plumbing and air conditioning.

Innovation metrics for art might be adoption by art museums and orchestras. Once almost all orchestras included saxophones, invented by Adolphe Sax in 1841, one could argue this instrument was a genuine innovation. Similarly, once almost all major museums included exhibitions of Cubist art, you could say it had arrived.

I hasten to note that this is not how art historians view innovation. Instead, they would assess how the invention affected the artistic community. If other artists extolled the invention, despite not necessarily adopting it themselves, it would over time be seen as an innovation.

There are several significant differences between innovation in art and technology.  Aesthetic innovation can involve creative adoption and extensions of old paradigms, sometimes abetted by technological innovations. Some artistic innovations involve leveraging technological innovations, e.g., robots, to the purposes and intentions of these domains. However, technology is inherently different because of constant progress – few people want an innovative new outhouse.

A fascinating crossing of borders between technology and art involves the impact of Poincare’s famous book on geometry, Science and Hypothesis, which 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.  It would be quite difficult to imagine anyone having predicted these outcomes – unlikely that there would have been a hype cycle for geometry.

Creativity can be important to inventing something new, and also be central to facilitating its adoption to become an innovation.  In a review of studies of creativity, I found that people judged to be creative had three common tendencies.  They were broad information seekers across a wide range of sources.  They mixed multiple approaches to processing information.  Finally, they perceived connections and distinctions that others did not.  Einstein, Picasso and their colleagues reading Poincare’s geometry treatise seems like a good example.

References

Borstlap, J. (2016). Is innovation in the arts a good thing? The Imaginative Conservative, March 15.

Galenson, D.W. (2006). Analyzing Artistic Innovation: The Greatest Breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

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

Time Horizons

We seem to think of the future, and perhaps the past, in terms of decades.  We likely recall our grandparents and, of course, our parents.  We consider our own lives and those of our children in terms of employment, education and eventually retirement.  Our overall time horizon for planning is likely 20-40 years.

Our plans inevitably are premised on explicit and implicit assumptions.  We expect that our society and economy will be pretty much as we have experienced them over the past decades.  That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it is not, as explained by famous fund manager Ray Dalio in Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

He looks back 500 years and characterizes the successive dominance of the Dutch, English, Americans and Chinese economies.  He argues there are 200 year cycles, plus or minus 150 years.  The phases of each cycle are new order, the rise, the top, the decline, and another new order.  The rise is characterized by strong leadership, inventiveness, education, strong culture, and economic growth.

The decline begins with decreased productivity, becoming over-extended, losing competitiveness, increasing wealth gaps, and large public debts.  This sounds pretty familiar to me.  Coming out of the Great Recession and the Coronavirus Pandemic, the US in exhibiting these symptoms.  China, in contrast, is on the rise.  So, our assumptions about the future US economy may not be warranted.  We may be the next United Kingdom.

What if your perspective is not centuries like Dalio, but millennia as considered by David Graeber and Davis Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).  They take a 30,000-year perspective, far beyond our usual time horizon, but nevertheless very interesting, Mostly because they show that history was not just a junior version of today.

They argue that “The prevalent ‘big picture’ of history – shared by modern-day followers of Hobbes and Rousseau alike – has almost nothing to do with the facts.”  ‘When it came to violence in pre-state peoples,’ writes the psychologist Steven Pinker, ‘Hobbes and Rousseau were talking through their hats: neither knew a thing about life before civilization.’

I had never really thought that these famous writers were articulating their perspectives, not reporting evidence-based truths.  Their frameworks were reasonable but unsupported by meaningful evidence.  Rationalization of colonial behaviors was pervasive.  “Colonial appropriation of indigenous lands often began with some blanket assertion that foraging peoples really were living in a State of Nature – which meant that they were deemed to be part of the land but had no legal claims to own it.”

We tend to consider civilization to be driven by the agricultural era.  However, “Farming often started out as an economy of deprivation: you only invented it when there was nothing else to be done, which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.”  The key point is that agriculture was not the central force in the development of social systems.

Graeber and Wengrow ask, “Why do we assume that people who have figured out a way for a large population to govern and support itself without temples, palaces and military fortifications – that is, without overt displays of arrogance, self-abasement and cruelty – are somehow less complex than those who have not?”

“Such ‘simple’ economies are rarely all that simple. They often involve logistical challenges of striking complexity, resolved on a basis of intricate systems of mutual aid, all without any need of centralized control or administration.”  “What they offer us is significant: proof that highly egalitarian organization has been possible on an urban scale.”

I find it interesting how settlements emerged, prospered, and then disappeared.  Teotihuacan in Mexico was founded in 100 BC and abandoned in 600 AD.  All the evidence suggests that Teotihuacan had, at its height of its power, found a way to govern itself without overlords.  As another example, construction of the city of Great Zimbabwe began in the 9th century and continued until it was abandoned in the 15th century.  Why?

Graeber and Wengrow argue that “Three principles – call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma – are also the three possible bases of social power.”  They observe that, “Social science has been largely a study of the ways in which human beings are not free: the way that our actions and understandings might be said to be determined by forces outside our control. Any account which appears to show human beings collectively shaping their own destiny, or even expressing freedom for its own sake, will likely be written off as illusory, awaiting ‘real’ scientific explanation; or if none is forthcoming, as outside the scope of social theory entirely.”

They conclude that “Complex systems don’t have to be organized top-down, either in the natural or in the social world. That we tend to assume otherwise probably tells us more about ourselves than the people or phenomena that we’re studying.” Clearly, looking back further than our own origin stories can provide insights into givens that were never really given.

Peter Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) provides a much longer term view.  Looking back millions of years, he consider the origins and evolution of life.  The protagonist in this historical story is an octopus.  Godfrey-Smith addresses the wonderful question, “What does it feel like to be an octopus?”

As we learn about the proclivities of this amazing animal, one naturally reflects on these phenomena from a personal perspective – what it feels like to be a human.  One also comes to appreciate the millions of years it took to become the particular human we turned out to be.

This brief review of three time horizons suggests a few fundamental questions:

  • What does it mean to be alive, conscious? What does success mean?  Millions of years are relevant to answering these questions.
  • How do social systems evolve and change? Are there common patterns?  What leads to one pattern or another?  Thousands of years are relevant.
  • How does economic prosperity emerge and inevitably fade?  Why do some economic systems dominate, at least for a while?  Hundreds of years are relevant.

It strikes me – and these authors articulate this – that much of my knowledge is premised on assumptions that are heavily biased by times that have been contemporary with my life.  I can somewhat manage a 100 year perspective, perhaps longer if I limit myself to western society.  Thousands and millions of years are mostly abstractions.

Common Ground

Thirteen months ago, the Trump wing of the Republican party attempted a coup of the US government.  They failed despite injuring hundreds and killing several.  Many hundreds of these people have been indicted for their acts of insurrection.  Prison terms have started to result with hundreds more in the offing.  The Republican party has characterized these people as political prisoners only culpable for peaceful demonstrations.

Despite torn emotions of disbelief and anger, the primary players have simple ambitions – power and money.  Both Democrats and Republicans want to retain the power of the federal purse strings, making sure, for example, that Kentucky gains far more federal funds that it contributes to federal coffers.  In general, the blue states heavily subsidize the red states, earning no gratitude in the process.  In fact, red states tend to distain the federal government, not understanding that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are federal programs.

There has of late been discussion of succession to form blue and red countries.  California and Texas could be credible independent states.  What about Alabama and Mississippi, or North and South Dakota, perhaps joining Montana and Wyoming.  Turning off the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spigots to these states would devastate their economies.  Yet, it may be that these states would thrive on poverty and starvation.  Everyone would be responsible for taking care of themselves.  Many people would die but the strong would prosper.

People would inevitably migrate to the blue states for jobs and economic sustenance.  These people would send remittances to their families in the red states, which will have become the equivalents of developing countries.  Poor education and health would plague these red states.  However, those few people who dominate these economies would control resources and provide meagre incomes to these people.  The red states would, in effect, become colonies of the blue states.

There would be strong upward mobility for the most talented people in the red colonies.  The best and brightest would prosper in blue universities.  The red universities would come to completely focus on sports.  All red university academic programs would be suspended.  Blue universities would outsource their athletic programs to the top red universities.  Agreements with professional sports organizations would provide enormous cash flows to these universities. 

These resources would enable the blue universities eventually to acquire the red universities.  Alumni would push back, but at some point billions of dollars would prevail.  The red states would increasingly feel like vassals of blue states.  This would lead to merger initiatives.  Virginia acquires West Virginia.  Colorado acquires Wyoming, soon followed by Montana and North and South Dakota.  The national map soon resembles a map of the major athletic conferences.

The National Country Alliance Association (NCAA) soon emerges.  Everybody is playing by the same agreed-upon rules.  People come to ask, “Why couldn’t we all just federate into one republic?”  This idea gains momentum and a Continental Congress is scheduled.  Inevitably, someone asks, Didn’t we do this before?” Yes, of course.  Why did we do this before? To gain our independence from England!

Well, why are we doing it now? We need to get beyond ourselves and all our petty grievances. So, should we focus on where we agree?  Yes, and work on our disagreements in the context of this baseline. That’s right. Start from common ground and work from there.

Perhaps this notion could be applied more broadly.  Succession to form blue and red countries is likely a terrible, extremely expensive way to eventually discover the leverage of creating and exploiting common ground.  We will undoubtedly find that we share many aspirations, far beyond the format of the Bowl Championship Series and the NCAA March Madness.

The Allure of Classic Cars

The Life of the Automobile by Steven Parissenien (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) presents a panorama of automotive invention and innovation over the past 150 years.  There have been many hits, for example, Ford’s Model T, Mustang and Taurus; GM’s ’55 Chevy, GTO, and Escalade; VW’s Beetle and Golf, and Citroen’s 2CV and DS.  The number of failures far exceed the successes, for instance, GM’s Aztec, Corvair, and Vega, and Ford’s Edsel, Festiva, and Pinto.

Why do cars fail to meet a company’s market objective’s that they were intended to meet?  First, many cars, once they emerge, do not meet the market’s needs and wants.  Second, the system development process employed does not yield a high quality vehicle.  How does this happen?  Mismanagement is the central cause.  Executives, who are almost always men, consider themselves “car guys” and use gut feelings to make terrible decisions.

Parissenien reports many examples of this happening leading to enormous financial losses for companies, and often loss of the company itself.  He argues that 1959 was the zenith of the US auto industry, featuring the Cadillac Eldorado, Chevrolet Impala, and Ford Galaxie.  It has been downhill since then, driven increasingly by competition from Germany, Japan, and Korea.  American car companies rely on large SUVs and pickup trucks for their profits.

A few years ago, we conducted a study of 12 cars that had been withdrawn from the market, four each in the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s.  Only one was withdrawn because of the nature of the car – people were unwilling to pay Packard prices for Studebaker quality, the companies having merged in 1954.  The other 11 vehicles were victims of financial and general mismanagement, as well broader market forces.

Parissenien provides a wealth of examples of lack of visionary leadership, failed processes, and not infrequent forces of greed.  Investors acquiring poorly run auto companies and then making matters worse seems to be a common trait of auto executives.  Unfortunately, a trait lacking for many car guys is discipline in terms of corporate finance, vehicle design and manufacturing, and supply chain management.

As I read this book on my Kindle, I used Google to access images of each of the cars mentioned.  Many of the non-US cars were unknown to me.  This combination of Kindle and Google made for a quite enjoyable experience.  It also provided a panorama of rather unattractive cars, with occasional gems of classic artistry and elegance.  Of course, if everything was a classic, the concept would not be meaningful.

It is quite natural to primarily remember the classic cars, even though they have been the exceptions.  Not surprisingly, we forget about Corvairs and Pintos.  Yet, failed offerings, particularly mediocre offerings, have been the rule rather than exceptions.  Nevertheless, I visit car museums whenever I encounter them when traveling — which has not happened lately.  There is definitely an allure to the classics.  While this tends to true for all the arts, the automobile has played a special role in many of our lives.

Ideas and Institutions

I have been thinking about the extent to which ideas are fleeting but institutions are sustaining.  Certainly ideas can be cumulative in the sense that electricity led to communications then computing and eventually networking via digital devices and social media.  This took roughly 150 years, but that is just a blip in the 6,000 years of human civilization.  It is extremely unlikely that people will be using the iPhone 6000 millennia into the future.  It is very difficult to imagine what people will be using in 2070.

Will there be educational institutions?  How about religious institutions?  Will there be governments?  We cannot be very sure of what form they will take, but education, religion, and government will likely be sustained.  Well, maybe.  What if human civilization does not survive?  What if the technological singularity leaves machines in charge?  Will machines need education and religion?  Perhaps institutions are sustaining until they are no longer relevant.

This raises the fundamental question of what we can assume about the future. In light of the Great Recession (2007-08) and current coronavirus pandemic (2020-22), “normal” seems like a vanishing benchmark.  Our quest for predictability may have run amuck.  Now, we need to hedge alternative futures.  Will vaccines preempt massive deaths? Will renewable energy sources prevail?  Our institutions need to help us understand and make associated investment decisions.

The notions of fleeting versus sustaining are very time and era dependent.  We all make tacit assumptions about what is a passing fancy versus a sustaining value.  We are all wrong as were the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.  What is common is people striving to make sense, survive, and hopefully prosper in the world where they find themselves.

This suggests than humanity “simply” aspiring to replicate itself is the sole overarching goal.  However, my guess is that, upon reflection, most of us would like the future civilization to be better than the current civilization in terms of health, education, and happiness.  But, what does that mean and how do we pursue it?

I recently read David Colander and Roland Kupers’ Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up (Princeton University Press, 2014).  They consider the relative roles of government and the marketplace in sustaining society.  Traditionally, these two perspectives have represented competing intellectual frameworks in economics.

Adopting a complex systems perspective, they outline how government and markets should work together.  Succinctly, government provides the top-down contexts and markets foster bottom-up innovations within these contexts.  Policy is the art of understanding and balancing these two perspectives.

More broadly, institutions design top-down frameworks with which people, bottom-up, create and nurture innovative ideas. This process is never finished.  Society and civilization continue to evolve, hopefully leading to growth and prosperity for all.  However, such progress is by no means guaranteed.  Civilizations have floundered as I outlined in my September post on Failures of Complex Societies.  Thus, we need to be flexible and adaptive in our balancing of top-down and bottom-up.

A Significant Milestone

Today, I am 75 years old.  My first engineering job was 55 years ago.  I earned my PhD from MIT five decades ago.  I was a tenured full professor at the University of Illinois over four decades ago. I was elected to the National Academy over three decades ago.    I have been on the faculties of six universities and founded, built, and sold several companies.

These accomplishments are very satisfying, but they are not central to becoming 75.  I am still fully involved in my professional life, but priorities have substantially changed.  I am not focused on building my resume.  Instead, the resumes of less senior and junior colleagues and students, including high school students have become priorities.

I continue to publish books and occasionally research articles. I am much more into impact, how investments of my time can make a difference in terms of societal benefits, both broadly and narrowly.  This leads me to be impatient with endless meetings and plans that are not subsequently executed.

Of course, physical health involves a few challenges; mental health seems good so far.  Diet and exercise receive increased attention.  After several serious falls, I am a highly vigilant walker.  The coronavirus has presented exercise challenges, but brisk – not fast — walks outside are wonderful.

Another impact of the coronavirus has been much more time to read — 60 books in 2021.  Combined with online business meetings, I spend over 8 hours each day looking at my laptop screen.  This seems like too much to me.  I am not sure of the consequences of so much screen time, but there must be some downside.

On the other hand, all this reading has led me to encounter previously unseen connections and distinctions among phenomena.  History, politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and technology richly interact at multiple levels of people, processes, organizations, and society.  Complex problems abound.

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal (Wellcome, 2014) provides pithy advice for successful aging.  These simple rules make sense to me, as well as to all my older colleagues with whom I have discussed them:

  • Retain a sense of purpose
  • Maintain social connections
  • Stay mobile

My purpose is to understand complex systems and communicate this understanding.  My social connections include family and friends, as well as a rich network of professional colleagues.  I frequently discuss complex problems with colleagues in this network, often by email and Zoom, but better yet in pubs and other social venues.  I stay mobile by walking everywhere, a necessity without a car.

All this is rather upbeat.  However, there are lessons learned over decades.  There are endless squirrels that, at first, seem worth chasing.  This consumes much energy and hardly ever succeeds.  Opportunities have to make sense within the priorities associated with your vision of where you are headed.  Potential funding is not at all near the top of my list.

Meetings that do not lead to an action agenda are interesting but seldom useful.  Sharing perspectives and insights is useful to a point.  At some point, however, the question is, “What are we going to try to do?”  As you get older, this question comes sooner rather than later.  How long are we going to talk about this?

Do I think this team can solve this problem or at least make significant progress?  Answering this question requires perspective and a sense of everyone’s batting average.  Are people committed?  Do they have a track record of delivering?  At age 75, interesting people are great.  Actual outcomes make everything much better.

The World’s Toughest Problems

A recent issue of Technology Review (October 2021) features an article, “The problem to end all problems,” by Siobhan Roberts.   This article addresses the treasured problem of “P versus NP,” the holy grail of theoretical computer science and mathematics.  Can particular problems by solved in polynomial time (nx) or non-polynomial time (en), where n is the number of nodes in a network representation of the problem?

Typical problems of interest include the knapsack problem (seeking the optimal way to pack a constrained space with the most valuable items), the traveling salesman problem (finding the shortest possible route that visits each city once and returns to the city of origin), and the Steiner tree problem (seeking to optimally connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length).  These problems are particularly difficult when the traveling salesman wants to visit one million cities.

Of course, these three classic problems are just placeholders for a wide range of other important optimization problems.  I do not doubt the importance of these problems, but are they really the world’s toughest problems?  They assume a fixed, albeit very large, network structure with known, and non-varying, links among nodes in this structure.  These classic problems are completely deterministic.  The central difficulty is the large numbers of nodes.

What if the number of nodes is not known, the relationships among nodes is uncertain, and may vary in time, and the behaviors of nodes may change in reaction to social situations, economic policies, political conflicts, and climate challenges?  What types of problems can be characterized in these ways?  How might they be more difficult than the complexity theorists’ world’s toughest problems?

Consider the nature of the US economy in health, education, energy, and security sectors.  In healthcare delivery, there are 295,000 primary care professionals, including 209,000 physicians, 552,000 specialty physicians, 6,100 hospitals and 1,200 clinics, and 330 million patients.  Higher education in the US includes 14,000 public school districts, 131,000 schools, 3.6 million teachers, and 51 million students.

The electric energy industry in the US includes 3,300 electric utilities, generating electricity via 1.5 million solar panels, 57,000 wind turbines, 1,500 hydro power plants, 7 million workers across the energy industry, and 330 million consumers.  National security in the US employs almost 3 million people, deployed in roughly 500 military installations in US in every state, and roughly 100 installations internationally, with millions of weapon systems deployed.

Each of these four ecosystems would easily be considered complex networks by researchers in computer science and mathematics – indeed, everyone would see these ecosystems as complex.  With significant difficulty, we could define each node in these networks of millions of nodes and, with even more difficulty, we might be able to define relationships among nodes, not just in specifications of connections, but in terms what information, resources, and services flow among nodes.

What would we like to compute and what value could be associated with the results of these computations?  It seems to me that the optimal, e.g., shortest, route among all these nodes would not be very interesting.  The most effective ways to communicate with and convince the network to adopt some particular behaviors, e.g., getting vaccinated or adopting green energy practices, would likely be valuable.  Unfortunately, knowledge that two nodes are connected is not sufficient to enable these behaviors.

We need much deeper understanding of the behavioral and social sciences phenomena underlying nodes and relationships among nodes.  Understanding the physics of what is connected to what is necessary but far from sufficient.  Similarly, knowing the street map for a city provides a minimal starting point for predicting how the city will innovate in the arts, science, and business. 

My sense is that Roberts’ “world’s toughest problems” characterize solutions to large, static, deterministic problems where the network of interest is fixed and unchanging.  This is not a good characterization of much of the panoply of problems the world faces.  Perhaps rephrasing as “mathematics toughest problems” might be a better characterization, but my guess is that there are tougher mathematical problems in game theory and stochastic processes.

Of course, claiming that something is toughest, easiest, best or worst is always readily open to criticism.  This is exacerbated when the problem definition is a substantial abstraction of real problems of interest.  Solutions of abstractions can be very useful, but translations to reality can be immensely difficult and highly worthy of their own accolades and approbations.

When Leadership Makes a Difference

Exemplary leaders face difficult circumstances, work with others to devise plans for addressing these circumstances, cultivate support for these plans, and execute plans with a degree of success. Such success in difficult circumstances is possible.  However, as the following vignettes illustrate, leadership is crucial.  If top leaders remain stewards of the status quo, fundamental change will not happen.  Leadership is the most important competency augmented by vision, strategy, communications, and collaboration.

National leaders are among the most obvious exemplars.  Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (1861-1865), as chronicled in Team of Rivals (Goodwin, 2006), showcased his abilities as a shrewd navigator of people and positions to achieve enormous, albeit painful, success.  Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era (1901-1909), chronicled in The Bully Pulpit (Goodwin, 2013), illustrated commitments to basic principles rather than the power brokers.

Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (1933-1945), combined with Winston Churchill and World War II (1940-1945), are wonderfully portrayed in Fateful Choices (Kershaw, 2007).  They needed to negotiate feasible and viable decisions to address and counter decisions by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Tojo.  These two leaders needed to understand their respective constituencies and how they could engender support for a cataclysmic confrontation.  They succeeded.

Corporate leaders might include Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt, but amassing monopolistic power does not seem to me to epitomize leadership as much as accumulation of raw market power.  Instead, consider Louis Gerstner and IBM (1993-2002), Bill Gates and Microsoft (1975-2000), and Steve Jobs and Apple (1976-2011).  These leaders transformed their enterprises.

IBM had its highest share price in 1990, but was on the path to losing billions in 1993.  Louis Gerstner, as new IBM CEO, is widely credited with transforming IBM.  Gerstner joined IBM in April 1993. During his tenure, the company’s share price increased more than 800 percent, and its market value grew by $180 billion. The company also gained market share in key strategic areas, including servers, software, storage and microelectronics.

Microsoft at first dismissed the Internet and Netscape’s web browser, introduced in 1994.  By May of 1995, however, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had thrown his company wholeheartedly into joining the “Internet tidal wave.”  They released Internet Explorer as an add-on for Windows 95.  More recently, Microsoft introduced Azure cloud computing services in 2010 and now is second in market share behind Amazon Web Services. 

Apple was on the brink of fizzling out, struggling to find a consistently profitable source of revenue.  Instead of continuing to aimlessly pursue marginal product ideas, Apple, with Steve Jobs again leading, began to focus once more on creating beautiful consumer electronics, starting with the iMac in 1998. The iPod was an even bigger success, selling over 100 million units within six years of its 2001 launch. The iPhone, another smash hit, was released in 2007 and resulted in enormous year-over-year increases in sales. The iPad followed in 2010.  Apple changed its name in 2007 from Apple Computer to just Apple.

Academia has been led by many transformational leaders.  Charles Eliot, President of Harvard (1869-1909) transformed this provincial college into a pre-eminent American research university. Karl Compton, President of MIT (1930-1948) and highly involved in supporting World War II efforts, transformed MIT to become a national research asset.  The federal funds that subsequently flowed to MIT have been immense.  More recently, Charles Vest, President at MIT (1990-2004) and the National Academy of Engineering (2007-2013), spearheaded expansions into the fields of brain and cognitive sciences, nanotechnology, genomic medicine, biological engineering, and engineering systems.

Wayne Clough, President at Georgia Tech (1994-2008), oversaw $1 billion in new construction, increased retention and graduation rates, achieved a higher nationwide ranking and pursued a much larger student body, including programs which encouraged undergraduate research, offered international experiences, and made college more affordable for low-income students. Clough went on to become Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (2008-2014).  His Provost, Jean-Lou Chameau became President of Cal Tech (2006-2013).

The above listing only includes men, mainly because political, industrial, and academic organizations were almost always led by white men.  Women found other paths to leadership.  Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, which evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation.

The early 20th century was an innovative period for cosmetics. Elizabeth Arden founded her cosmetics empire Elizabeth Arden, Inc. in 1910.  Helena Rubinstein founded Helena Rubinstein Inc. cosmetics company in 1915.  Both women became among the richest women in the world.

Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, founded in 1910. She is recognized as the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Women comprised almost 60% of US college students in 2020.  Almost 51% of students in medical schools and more than 52% of the students in law schools were women.  Women comprise 27% of the Members of Congress.  Roughly 70% are Democrats.  Much of the growth in female Members has come since the 1990s.  There is a steadily growing number, now over 40, of female CEOs among the Fortune 500. These trends portend increasing numbers of women in leadership positions.

Leadership is not just a matter of being in charge, which can be characterized as management or perhaps administration. Exemplary leaders face difficult circumstances, work with others to devise plans for addressing these circumstances, cultivate support for these plans, and execute plans with a degree of success.  Management or administration are seldom adequate in such situations.  Leadership is the most important competency augmented by vision, strategy, communications, and collaboration.

When Personalities Trump Competence

Donald Trump is, of course, the ultimate example of this phenomenon.  He is a narcissistic psychopath exhibiting extreme forms of grandiosity, exploitive behavior and a lack of empathy.  Fortunately, this severe personality disorder is not common.  There are much lessor disorders with which we must deal.

One is fervent optimism.  We have all had colleagues who are always upbeat and sure that everything will work out.  They are sure that the best outcomes will happen.  The archetype of this personality is Sonny, manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. One of his favorite sayings is, “Everything will be all right in the end and if it is not, then it’s not yet the end.”

There is also fervent pessimism.  My mother, imbued with a “depression mentality” – learned from the Great Depression, 1938 Hurricane, and World War II – often concluded, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I have colleagues who believe and anxiously await all the terrible things that will happen.  One colleague pays particular attention to all the things that can go wrong.  His insights are often quite useful.

Another category is arrogance involving people who know everything.  Their way is always the right way.  They are the only ones who understand the central issues.  Any potentially good ideas encounter retorts that we already did that.  The worst case are people who knows absolutely how everything in life is going wrong.  Such folks are not interested in your perspectives.

A special category of arrogance includes people who are combative.  They know that you are wrong.  They know the right way to do things.  Further, they are sure that you don’t know what you are doing.  They are dismissive of you and everybody else.  They are not really sure of why you or anybody else ventures to offer opinions or suggestions.

Then there is the category of the oppressed. Their lives are laced with woe.  The organization, indeed the world, provides them no support.  They have to struggle to accomplish everything by themselves.  An extreme of this category are those whose lives are a mess.  Relationships, children, and even their homes conspire against them.  They feel compelled to relate these woes to everyone.

How can one best cope with the above types of personalities.  A strategy of listening but not reacting might work unless you are the leader of the team.  Then, you have to facilitate the interactions between the troublesome team members and everybody else.  You cannot let these unfortunate behaviors undermine the team and possibly the whole organization.

This can be rather problematic when the people exhibiting these behaviors are among the highest performers on the team.  You do not want to get rid of them because they are really good at what they do.  You might try to convert those in the troublesome categories to become optimists.  This will likely require some one-on-one mentoring.  This special attention can provide opportunities to acknowledge these team members’ skills and contributions, while asking them to change their approaches to others.

Leading a team involves much more than simply getting everyone to do their job well.  Excellent taskwork is necessary for success, but not sufficient.  You also need excellent teamwork.  Sometimes this requires mentoring excellent task workers to become better team workers.  This may involve mentoring some types of personalities to overcome their natural tendencies.  Everyone on the team will appreciate this.

When No One Owns the Problem

There are many problems in our societies, our organizations, and our relationships that no one wants to own.  Owning a problem implies a responsibility for solving it.  If one recognizes a problem but does not own it, one can often comfortably wait for others to solve it.  After all, the problem is not yours.

The most common example of this is the fading market value of your current products and services.  Examples include film-based cameras being replaced by digital,  photography, inexpensive flip phones by smart phones, and lackluster domestic cars – Mercury, Plymouth, Pontiac and Oldsmobile – by Asian and European imports.  These problems were well recognized, but everybody stuck to the knitting of the status quo.

Another common example is burdensome internal policies and procedures that provide little value and consume significant resources.  The worst situations are cultures of compliance laced with administrative incompetence.  An interview study we conducted with Department of Defense science and technology executives found that success could be primarily attributed to insanely committed champions who only succeeded by circumventing policies intended to support them.

Another pervasive example is processes intended to enhance a shared value but actually systematically undermine this value.  Many of the companies with whom I have worked have well-articulated processes for fostering and managing invention and innovation.  However, the prescribed decision making processes are often circumvented, particularly by senior executives who want their pet ideas supported.  Not surprisingly, cynicism quickly emerges and undermines invention and innovation.

All of these examples represent situations where the value of the status quo has significantly eroded.  Almost everyone recognizes this, but nobody owns it.  Everyone mutually pretends that everything is fine, but also internally acknowledges that things are amuck.  What is needed is a leader, at some level, to articulate the problem and advocate a solution.

It is much easier to get everyone to own a well-conceived and broadly recognized solution.  This solution represents what we are going to do rather than what we are going to stop doing.  It represents the pursuit of success rather than the avoidance of failure.  Few people want to accept responsibility for failure.  Everyone one wants to be recognized for contributions to success.

The idea of owning a problem suggests some level of blame for the existence of the problem.  People try to avoid blame.  In contrast, the notion of owning a solution suggests some prospects for success and perhaps recognition for having contributed to this success.  People usually aspire to such outcomes.

When Secondary Issues Dominate

Most organizations have missions and visions for how best to pursue missions, regardless of whether these value statements are formalized or not.  Organizational performance metrics indicate how well the organization is performing in terms of revenues, profits, lives saved or students educated.  Successful organizations excel in terms of organizational performance.  Most organizations try to improve these metrics.

Peter Drucker famously said, “There is only one purpose of a business: to create a customer.”  People become customers – or constituencies — of an organization when the organization provides something they value.  Understanding, enhancing, and providing value should be the driving issue in an organization.  If one does not create a compelling value proposition, organizational success will be limited and likely fleeting.

Are there tradeoffs between organizational performance and other aspects of the organization?  For example, might one tradeoff organizational performance versus compliance with policies, procedures and regulations?  One certainly would not want the quest for performance to undermine workforce safety or contribute to environmental degradation – although this happens with great regularity.

What about organizational performance versus diversity, equity and inclusion?  My sense is that everyone agrees that a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce benefits every type of organization.  But how do we get there?  At one extreme, we simply stop hiring any white, male candidates.  That will quickly get the numbers right.  More reasonably, we focus on making sure that female and minority candidates are competitive.

That works too, albeit much more slowly.  However, we need to put this in context.  I have recently participated in two National Academy workshops on advancement of faculty members, i.e., promotion and tenure.  We learned that 90% of faculty members hired nationwide over the past decade have been adjuncts and part-time faculty, with much lower compensation, no benefits and no job security.

The implications for diversity, equity and inclusion is that everybody will be treated equally poorly.  Unwilling to trim administrative costs, universities will focus on cutting faculty costs and continue to mercilessly exploit everyone with low wages, no benefits, and no job security.  My sense is that this was not the intent of the diversity, equity and inclusion advocates.  Should we really try to argue for sustaining the benefits of positions that will steadily disappear?

It seems to me that we need to embrace the future value proposition and the metrics of organizational performance that are sustainable.  Is promotion and tenure why a university exists?  That is very faculty-centric.  Are graduation rates the primary metrics?  That is very student-centric.  Another possibility is that universities should prepare graduates to enable innovations that transform society and the economy.  Then, of course, we should determine which administrative functions enable such outcomes. 

Consider compliance functions.  A colleague at Georgia Tech once commented to me that his worst nightmare was a call from the university’s Chief Compliance Officer.  My experience has been that the worst environment in which to work is a culture of compliance laced with administrative incompetence.  The enforcers take everything completely literally.

An experience at Waffle House illustrates this.  I had taken two guests from industry to breakfast at the Waffle House around the corner from my office.  We ate lightly and the whole bill was around $12.  Waffle House does not provide itemized receipts, so the receipt did not indicate what each person had eaten.  The university refused to reimburse this expense because I could not prove that no alcohol was consumed.  Waffle House does not serve alcohol.  I paid the bill personally.

Another university with which I was affiliated decided that faculty and staff had to prove they had actually taken trips for which they reported expenses.  They required either a picture of the traveler at the venue visited or a letter from the person visited attesting to the fact that one had actually met with them.  This became extremely controversial when a Dean refused to ask the Secretary of Defense to provide such a letter.  This requirement was eventually rescinded.

I was in a workshop when a senior Air Force executive proclaimed, “I would be comfortable with the government spending $10 to assure that every $1 is appropriately spent.”  This immediately led to suggestions that the whole government budget be spent on compliance rather than defense, education or health.  The Air Force executive, the most senior person in the workshop, was not amused.

At another university, it was discovered that a faculty member was being reimbursed for travel by the university and another organization – for the same trips.  He was reprimanded and his credit card cancelled.  To be absolutely safe, the university cancelled the credit cards of all 6,000 employees.  People were now required to use personal credit cards and submit expenses for reimbursement.

To ease this process, the university arranged for one credit card company to issue cards to everyone.  The university soon discovered that people were using these cards for personal purchases, for which they did not request reimbursement.  This seemed reasonable to many people as the cards were in their names.  However, in negotiating with the credit card company, the university had obtained a $10 reduction in the annual fee, which they claimed was effectively income to the employee.  Playing it safe, the university again cancelled the credit cards of all 6,000 employees.

The university installed a new travel management system so that filing of travel expenses was automated.  The user interface to this system was absolutely terrible, prompting a raft of complaints.  At a university-wide meeting where this was addressed, a manager in finance commented that installing this system had enabled reducing staffing by one person.  Someone quickly reacted with, “So, now you have 6,000 people spending time doing this job!”

A large aerospace company, with whom I worked, installed an automated timesheet system.  Every ten minutes, it prompted each of many thousands of employees to enter the charge code for what they had worked on for the past ten minutes.  I asked colleagues how they felt about this.  One reaction was, “It’s irritating as hell, but you sort of get used to it.”

All of these example illustrate how people adapt to and cope with organizations’ proclivities to formulate and implement policies, procedures, and regulations that slowly but surely undermine organizational performance.  This is in part due to people wasting time on non-value-added activities.  It is also due to the employee cynicism that emerges and festers.  The primary purpose of the organization slowly fades into the background.

When We Misunderstand the Signals

I have been involved in a variety of engagements with automotive companies over the past three decades.  These companies’ abilities to understand marketplace desires 3-4 years in advance is a key element of success.  There are several compelling examples of getting this right and numerous instances of getting it wrong.

Beyond uncertainties about customers’ future desires, these companies also face considerable uncertainties associated with competitors’ likely decisions and plans.  I have encountered a variety of instances of automotive competitors announcing major investments that they have no intent to pursue.  The companies with whom I was working entertained making comparable investments, later learning they misunderstood the market signals.

Many years ago, I was engaged by the South African Foundation for Research and Development to provide a keynote talk on innovation and then facilitate discussion among the 100 plus workshop participants on their issues and concerns related to launching their ventures.  The top concern was the availability of venture funds to get started.  We had expected this.

The next morning, we announced a venture fund that would provide $50,000 seed money based on a one-page proposal.  We asked participants if we could help them to complete and submit their proposals that day.  There were no volunteers.  The discussion shifted to the question of what was holding them back.  Everyone felt forming a company was much too risky.

We pressed them on this.  Why were they in the workshop if this was not a top aspiration?  They responded that forming a company seemed like what they should do since their first choice was unavailable.  What was that, we asked?  A secure lifetime position in a government agency or institute.  We had misunderstood their signals about venture formation and investment funds.  This was actually their second choice.

For many years, I was very active in the Atlanta technology community, attending many events and occasionally giving talks on my latest book.  I was able to chat with a variety of highly successful entrepreneurs.  I recall asking one high profile CEO, “How did you come up with such a great (software) idea?”  He responded, “We didn’t. It took our customers a couple of years to convince us of what they really wanted.”

At the time, I was CEO of Enterprise Support Systems (ESS), Inc. a spin-off of Search Technology, Inc., of which I was the founding CEO.  ESS developed and sold a suite of software tools and related consulting and training services.  Roughly 80% of our sales were to Fortune 100 technology companies, all well-known name brands.  Our dominant strategy was to move from division to division of these companies with one division vice president opening a door to another.

Our vision of being a product company like Microsoft with its MS Office Products caused significantly delayed recognition of the demand for and value of our services.  We eventually realized that we thought our customers primarily wanted software tools when they really wanted expert users of these tools to help them succeed.

A senior executive at one of our major clients put it succinctly, “I am not at all concerned with the cost of your software or your services.  I am concerned with the overall cost of success.  Your tools, and especially your services, greatly enhance our chances of success.  You may make better profit margins on your software tools, but without your services, your tools are much less valuable.”

We validated this message with other clients.  It was unanimous.  This created an opportunity and a problem.  We found that we needed sophisticated tools for customers to feel the pricing of software and services was justified.  Sophistication for this customer based meant solid mathematical foundations, references to key publications, and abilities to teach users about these underpinnings.  We succeeded with this for two of the four tools in our Advisor Series portfolio of tools.

The problem this created related to the sophistication of our staff.  We hired, in succession, two senior sales executives.  They had rich experience bases and great expertise, but they both lacked a deep understanding about what we were selling.  Put simply, when your primary clients are PhD electrical engineers and computer scientists, you have to be able to approach them in their comfort zones.

These two senior sales executives expanded our customer base to include companies we would not have imagined buying our software and services, but the new customers could not relate to the key elements of our value proposition.  Follow-on sales were limited.  We parted ways with these senior sales executives on good terms.  We all realized our game was different.

We recruited resellers of our software tools in over 20 countries.  Some were very successful, but many were not.  All of them leveraged our software tools to sell a modest amount of software and large service projects.  Our branded tools gave them competitive advantages to sell services.  Their profit margins on the software were respectable but small compared to the service revenues.  All of these relationships were eventually not worth the costs of maintaining them.

Another conundrum involved customers requesting ideas, and perhaps proposals, for how to solve problems of importance to them, but then buying the actual solution from other vendors with lower service prices.  We gained revenue and profits from our ideas, but it did not seem that these modest returns were sufficient to justify investing scarce talents in such marginal returns.

We explored dramatically reducing prices for our software tools – from $10,000 for a corporate license for 20 copies to a license for $99 per copy.  This turned out to be a terrible idea.  The cost of the box and manual was much greater than the cost of software.  Major corporations purchased one $99 license and then wanted substantial support services, which we already provided — but they wanted these services for free for their $99 purchase.

Understanding market signals is very complicated.  You want to provide customers what you are ready to provide but, of course, that is in your interests and not necessarily theirs.  The market may have completely unrealistic expectations – for example the current AI hype cycle – that do not make sense for you or anyone to attempt to serve.  Yet, it seems that the market is demanding it.

Addressing this dilemma involves finding the signal in the noise.  This can be facilitated by systematically combing the evidence.  What evidence?  For example, one of the functions on our Curis Meditor research portal enables reviewing 50,000 global English-language news articles – per day!  Digital assistance helps this process enormously.

This could help you to determine, for instance, that your competitor’s announced investment does not make sense and must be a ruse.  Thus, there are possibilities of making sense of external market signals.  The prospects of internal market assumptions being wrong is a more difficult challenge, as illustrated earlier. 

A good starting point is to make these assumptions explicit and then seek evidence that supports or refutes them.  Talking to your current and prospective clients and customers is one of the best available means to make such assessments.  Perhaps they will eventually convince you of what they really want.

When the Unpopular Position Is Correct

Most organizations and people like to think that everything is under control, proceeding as planned, and the sought outcomes will be realized.  If anyone suggests otherwise, they will be chastised for not being team players, perhaps for having bad attitudes, or quite simply for being outright wrong.  Unpopular positions are seldom socially acceptable in organizations.

It is worthwhile to understand how these organizational values and norms can result in enormous wastes of resources and time to address problems that desperately need attention if the organization can only accept that they are happening.  It is quite common for this recognition to be delayed until no one can deny the organization is in trouble, and resources and time are inadequate for strong, successful responses.

There are few better examples of when we were not paying attention to looming dangers than the Great Recession in 2007-2008 stemming from the bursting of the real estate bubble and the coronavirus pandemic emerging in 2020, chronicled by Michael Lewis in The Big Short (2010) and The Premonition (2021), respectively.  In both cases, political leaders downplayed the risks and magnitudes of the likely consequences.

What most struck me about both events is the extent to which some of the smartest people in the US were betting against the country by shorting investments where severe losses would provide them enormous gains.  These people could see what was coming and adjusted their investment strategies accordingly.  Most of the population, however, was being misled by their leaders.

Over the past three decades, the US auto industry has grappled with the reality of no longer being market leaders.  Chevrolet Impalas and Ford Galaxies have been replaced by Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys as the best-selling cars.  Cadillac and Lincoln have been displaced by BMW, Mercedes and Lexus as aspirational luxury cars.  My experiences working with several companies in this industry was that everybody recognized this but nobody felt empowered to articulate it.

Another challenge emerges when current market positions are not sustainable.  In other words, things are not going as well as everybody thinks.  In one of my university leadership positions, I discovered that my unit was receiving over 50% of the funds from one division of a government agency.  I learned that this was due to a champion in this agency, who was soon to depart.  I argued that we needed to diversify.  Everyone ignored my arguments until research revenues plummeted.

A value proposition that was once competitive can become no longer competitive.  At another university, I met with leaders of an online educational program that I learned was being challenged by a top-ranked competitor that was offering a first-rate program for tuition less than 10% of our offering.  I suggested that our moderately-ranked offering would eventually see greatly reduced market share.  Astoundingly, university leaders decided to raise prices.  They remain alive but struggling with enrollments.

Technology can undermine market positions.  I gave a dinner talk to a large group of insurance executives.  I asked each table to discuss what they felt was the greatest threat to their business.  A bit later, every table reported the same conclusion – driverless cars.  In all US states, premiums are legally limited to matching claims.  Many fewer accidents will lead to greatly reduced premiums and, hence, sharply declining revenues.

We worked with these companies to explore alternative scenarios.  All scenarios resulted in dramatically decreased revenues over the next 10-15 years as driverless cars gain market share.  This led to detailed consideration of the types of insurance needed in this morphed ecosystem.  They saw opportunities to compensate in part for the losses.  These possibilities made it socially acceptable to discuss the scenarios.

I have consulted with two of the three largest providers of dining services in the US, e.g., via industry, government, and academic cafeterias.  It is a fiercely competitive business with very low profit margins.  During a strategy offsite, the CEO made a radical proposal to raise prices.  The other members of the executive team asserted that this would be the kiss of death.

He outlined the following logic.  If prices were raised by $2 per meal, almost all of the increase could go into the quality of the food.  He projected that customers would willing to pay for decidedly better meals.  They pilot tested the idea it was hugely successful and widely deployed.  What his team perceived to be a terrible idea was in fact a great idea that resulted in increased revenues and profits.

A competitor, perhaps 2-3 times larger than us, approached me about possibly acquiring us.  I had recently been through another acquisition “dance,” which we declined, and would have dismissed this opportunity, but considered their CEO a long-term friend.  Our company was very carefully managed.  My meetings with him and his team suggested that they were not as careful.

This company had developed a computer-based training system, with associated hardware, for training crews of Army tanks.  They were in the process of bidding on an Army contract to build a large number of these training simulators.  The CEO was quite confident that they would win.  His executive team tried to caution his optimism and not “bet the farm” on winning.

He was not deterred.  He was so confident that he made a major investment in constructing the factory to produce the training simulators, before the winner of the competition was decided.  They lost to a company that provided a much lower bid.  They were left with an empty factory and significantly depleted assets.  As far as I know, they never completely recovered from mismanaging these risks.

My experiences across the companies I have founded, and the many who have been clients, is that unpopular positions should be acknowledged and attention invested in due diligence concerning them.  I have found that opportunities are very seldom sure things, and you and your team are never as good as you pretend.  You can compensate for these shortcomings, in part, by making risk management a core competency.  There are rarely, if ever, good opportunities to bet the farm.  A portfolio of investments, some larger and many smaller, will lead to at least a few wins and no large losses.  Finally, as illustrated by the dining services vignette, an unpopular position may actually be a great opportunity.

When Stakeholders Thwart Change

People who are advantaged by the status quo tend to be averse to changing it.  Consequently, those who are favored in this way tend to herald its merits and distain the alternatives.  Why wouldn’t we continue the policies and strategies that generously rewarded them in the past.  As leader of an organization needing to entertain fundamental change, you need to be able to understand and manage such reluctance.

I served on an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board study of science and technology investment strategies.  We considered what investments were needed to assure “pervasive battlespace awareness.”  I commented that this can be enabled in many ways, but key stakeholders on the study committee reminded me that they produce satellites, airplanes, and missiles.  They needed those solutions to prevail.

This reflects their strong desires to sustain investments in incumbent capabilities and sustain current jobs.  Not surprisingly, this motivation is pervasive.  People do not want their economic supply chain to be disrupted.  They want paychecks, promotions, and pensions to flow as they expected.  They want this economic supply chain to perpetually persist.  Of course, that has really never been the case.

Despite easy automation of routine clerical jobs, manual labor is retained to keep people employed.  I encountered this when living in Europe.  Despite strong priorities and desires to sustain investments in incumbent capabilities, these positions were steadily disappearing.  It appeared that a primary motivation for sticking to the status quo was desires to avoid the costs of training people for new jobs.

Moving to professional personnel, there is no reason for each faculty member to prepare fresh class notes for each course.  Nevertheless, this time-consuming rite of passage continues.  Every faculty member gets to research and determine how best to teach western civilization, a topic taught for well over 1,000 years.  How many new ways can there be to do this?

Disciplines that dominate academic cultures tend to be sustained despite their seeming marginal relevance.  For example, in my world, many faculty members extoll the virtues of mathematics, even when purely mathematical solutions of the real problems at hand are intractable.  Faculty members who pursue empirical approaches to these problems are distained as applied practitioners – not pursuing fundamental knowledge.

The concern among these recalcitrant stakeholders is not employment.  It is self-esteem.  They have spent decades becoming highly skilled and expert at what they, and their colleagues, perceive to be fundamental and pervasively important skills.  The possibility that these skills, while still important, are now of limited rather than pervasive value is very difficult for them to accept.  Thus, they do their best to thwart change.

Fortunately, as Max Planck asserted, disciplines advance by funerals.  Thus, faculty members who strongly defend yesterday’s status quo eventually disappear, while making as much fuss as they can in the process.  Stakeholders thwarting change are recurring phenomena and a challenge for leaders trying to balance faculty interests.  However, time heals the challenges at hand with, of course, younger stakeholders, perhaps unconsciously, awaiting their turn.

A common refrain is, “We’ve always done it this way.”  Thus, for example, GM’s executives insist that the first year of a new car has to be a coupe, despite the fact that the public is only buying sedans and now, of course, SUVs.  GM eventually abandoned this practice after dramatically losing market share.  Executives thwarted change as long as they could.

Another example is college’s expectations of student attrition.  Within engineering, the common guidance was, “Look to your left and look to your right.  Next year only one of the three of you will still be here.”  Why is this long-held norm a good idea?  Why were “weed out” courses created?  Fortunately, student success initiatives have significantly eroded this tradition.

Underlying all of the above is a strong tendency to revere “the good old days,” even though they were not really good for everybody – or even anybody.  Before cars, New York City had to remove 100,000 tons of horse manure each year.  No one missed it.  Few people want to get rid of electricity, refrigeration, air conditioning and indoor plumbing.  The good old days were more old than good.

How about values and norms such as honesty, discipline, and hard work, possibly pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps?  Such values and norms tend to only make sense for those stakeholders with requisite opportunities.  These are often the stakeholders with the economic resources to be healthy, get educated, and pursue opportunities.  Others may be able to relate to these aspirations but be in no position to pursue them.

Beyond concerns about losses of jobs, income, benefits, and self-esteem, there is another primary reason to thwart change.  Key stakeholders may not trust change in the sense of being wary that their interests will be discounted and ignored.  Their experiences tell them that no one will protect them from the downside of change.  History provides much evidence that they are correct.  The winners relish their victories and disdain the losers, even though losing was built into the game for many people. 

Several years ago, I studied how defense companies succeeded in transitioning from defense to commercial markets.  I could only find one company that transitioned successfully while retaining the majority of the same employees – Kaman Corporation.  It is much more common for companies to redeploy financial and physical assets without retaining the previously valuable people and competencies.

In another engagement, I helped a large defense electronics company consider a transition to commercial electronics.  The most outspoken opponents were the engineers who believed they worked on the cutting edge of technology in defense and would be relegated to mundane applications in commercial markets.  The company decided to abandon these commercial aspirations.

I had a similar experience with the transition from my first to second companies.  We had long felt that we needed product lines that provided recurring revenue beyond our service revenues for research and design services.  In developing a portfolio of products, we learned that customers wanted the tools hosted on IBM PCs, or maybe Apple Macs.  Our software staff had complete disdain for these platforms compared to the $100,000 engineering workstation to which they accustomed.

Consequently, the launch of the second company included only one of the 20+ software engineers of the first company, as well as one person in finance and one in marketing.  We had to consciously build a new culture around low-end work stations, an 800 number for customer support, and other functions customers expected.  Also of great importance were product upgrades every 12 months or less.

Can everybody win from transformational change?  You need well-articulated plans for those who want to be part of the transformation, including new roles, objectives, and incentives, as well as the training required to succeed.  However, you should not expect everyone to join the process.  Many – hopefully not most – of your best people will have other opportunities and priorities.  For some, their self-images – e.g., as mathematicians or software engineers – will not be compatible with where you are headed. 

You can expect that significant stakeholders will attempt to thwart your aspirations for fundamental change.  Their reasons may be quite rational, far from capricious.  This will be less of a problem if you understand and expect such reactions.  Your primary objective is to lead the organization forward to sustainable success.  Your job is not to make sure everybody is happy.

When Abilities to Execute Are Secondary

It’s a great idea, but can we do it?  Can we make it happen?  We are going to boil the oceans and then provide everybody gourmet seafood dinners.  Ok for those who eat seafood, but how is this going to be accomplished?  Making the elements of a solution happen – executing — tends to be an enormous challenge.

What if everyone in the world had smart phones, state of the art laptops, and high performance broadband connectivity?  Wouldn’t everything be ok then, at least eventually?  These capabilities would help, but life involves much more than technology.  What about economic opportunities and access to food, healthcare, and education?

I have been involved in seemingly endless conversations about digitally transforming an enterprise.  The idea is to eliminate paper, become totally data driven, and to embrace evidence-based decision making.  Sounds great if data are available and curated.  Let’s reflect on what success will require.

If one wants data-driven, evidence-based strategy discussions, there are a few precursors:

  • Does one have the requisite data over a meaningful period of time?
  • Have these data sets been curated to assure that they represents a valid corpus?
  • Have inconsistencies and incompatibilities across data sets been identified?
  • Have models been identified that can provide valid projections of future outcomes?

Assuring appropriate answers to these questions is difficult work.  In my experience, many organizations treat these questions much too lightly.  They want to avoid the difficult work and “install” solutions quickly.  Two examples provide good illustrations. 

A large aerospace company asked me to help them determine what knowledge management solution to acquire.  I asked them, “Where is poor knowledge management hurting you?”  After much discussion, they chose foreign military sales.  We then proceeded to address that one specific problem to learn what knowledge management really meant and how it could help them.

The CEO of a large appliance company asked me what knowledge management solution they should acquire.  I asked him the same leading question.  His team concluded that production plans often resulted in appliances being produced that no one had ordered and appliances not being produced that Walmart, in particular, had ordered.  They noted Walmart because this customer charged a penalty for undelivered products, i.e., the profit they would have made had the products been delivered.

We tracked down how production forecasts were developed.  Field representatives provided projections of appliance sales, by product, in their region.  These forecasts were compiled and resulted in production plans.  We talked with field representatives about how they came up with their forecasts.  A common answer was, “I look at last quarter’s orders and decide where to increment them up or down.  By the way, what do you do with those numbers?”

The knowledge management problem was that key participants in the production planning process did not know how their inputs affected the process.  Beyond managing knowledge, the company needed to do a much better job at sharing it.  This led the company to create an initiative focused on who needs to know what and how this knowledge is shared.

Once one gets past the above hurdles of data access, curation, and modeling, several new questions become central:

  • What economic, social, and political forces are likely to affect the future?
  • How are these forces likely to impact our projections of future revenues?
  • Are our competencies well positioned for this competition?
  • Where will we experience challenges – performance, cost, customer satisfaction?

To address these types of questions, we need to move beyond “what is” to address “what if.”  Questions associated with “what is” can be addressed with the data sets noted above.  These data sets are inherently about was has happened, not what will or might happen.

“What if” questions can be informed by but not answered by empirical data.  This is simply because the future has not yet happened.  Nevertheless, execution happens in the future.  A digital strategy, or equivalent, that is limited to examining the past will be very much inadequate.  Emerging forces, their impacts, and abilities to compete are all about executing in the future, a future that is quite likely to be significantly different than the past.

Abilities to execute are usually addressed within the context of the incumbent enterprise’s abilities to scale what it has long been doing.  This perspective has merits – unfortunately, often only briefly.  A company’s ability to steadily increase quality and decrease costs can sustain and perhaps grow revenues for existing offerings.  This worked for Henry Ford’s Model T for almost 20 years, but the competition came to offer better models in more than one color.

How can an organization catch up with what will be needed?  How should they plan to execute in the future?  These questions tend to be major challenges, often insurmountable challenges.  Many, perhaps most, organizations think they are doing their best to execute their processes today.  Their processes may be outmoded and inefficient, but they have little time to think about this possibility.

Consider briefly the domains of healthcare, education, and energy.  Technologies will potentially impact all three domains.  Telehealth and artificial intelligence will change key elements of healthcare.  Online learning, including the unbundling of learning, will profoundly affect the economics of post-secondary education.  Renewable, yet intermittent, energy sources will challenge reliable and resilient provision of energy.

These three domains are likely to execute in the future much differently than they execute today.  Those who wait to see what happens are unlikely to be tomorrow’s leaders.  In contrast, those who see execution in the future as primary, and consequently play central roles in designing these futures, will undoubtedly lead their domains into those futures.

Several years ago, I was engaged with a large information technology company in developing an R&D strategic plan.  They had an agreed upon social norm that surprised me.  Apparently, marketing had a tendency to dream up wild ideas.  Engineering and manufacturing would explain the difficulties of executing their visions.  Someone from marketing would invariably say, “Oh, come on.  How difficult could that really be?”  The technical folks complained to top management.  This execution-oriented challenge was henceforth banned.

When the Competition Surprises You

Consider two surprises for General Motors (GM) and how they reacted, initially poorly but later quite successively.  Both illustrations involved Ford surprising GM. The first led to a major failure and the second to a substantial success.  Indeed, failures to achieve corporate objectives are quite common in the automobile industry.  Not every vehicle is a home run – far from it.

In 1981 General Motors began planning for a complete refresh of its intermediate size vehicles:  the front wheel drive A-Cars and the older rear wheel drive G-cars.  The GM10 program would yield vehicles badged as Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks.  This program was to be the biggest R&D program in automotive history and with a $5 billion dollar budget, the most ambitious new car program in GM’s then 79-year history.

The introduction of the Ford Taurus in 1985 was a huge market and business success, and a complete surprise to GM.  It was one of the first projects in the U.S. to fully utilize the concept of cross-functional teams and concurrent engineering practices. The car and the processes used to develop it were designed and engineered at the same time, ensuring higher quality and more efficient production. The revolutionary design of the Taurus coupled with its outstanding quality, created a new trend in the U.S. automobile industry, and customers simply loved the car.   

The Taurus forced GM to redesign the exterior sheet metal of the GM10 because senior executives thought the vehicles would look too similar.  Many additional running changes were incorporated into the design in an attempt to increase customer appeal.  The first vehicles reached the market in 1988, ~$2 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. 

All of the first GM10 entries were coupes, a GM tradition for the first year of any new platform.  However, this market segment had moved overwhelmingly to a four-door sedan style. Two-door midsize family cars were useless to the largest group of customers in the segment — members of the Baby Boomer generation were now well into their child rearing years and needed four doors for their children.  GM completely missed the target segment of the market.  From 1985 to 1995 GM’s share of new midsize cars tumbled from 51% to 36%.

The Lincoln Navigator is a full-size luxury SUV marketed and sold by the Lincoln brand of Ford Motor Company since the 1998 model year. Sold primarily in North America, the Navigator is the Lincoln counterpart of the Ford Expedition. While not the longest vehicle ever sold by the brand, it is the heaviest production Lincoln ever built. It is also the Lincoln with the greatest cargo capacity and the first non-limousine Lincoln to offer seating for more than six people. 

GM was completely surprised by the Navigator.  They had not imagined that customers would want luxurious large SUVs.  GM responded with the Cadillac Escalade in 1999, intended to compete with the Navigator and other upscale SUVs.  The Escalade went into production only ten months after it was approved.  The 1999 Escalade was nearly identical to the 1999 GMC Yukon Denali, except for the Cadillac badge and leather upholstery. It was redesigned for the 2002 model year to make its appearance and features fall more in line with Cadillac’s image.

In 2019, 18,656 Navigators were sold, while 35,244 Escalades were sold. Escalade has outsold Navigator every year since 2002.   GM had clearly adapted to the surprise of the Navigator.   One can reasonably infer that the company learned from the GM10 debacle.  Surprises happen.  Be prepared.

The Taurus and Navigator were two of the best ten cars we identified in our study for GM, along with the worst ten cars.  Other winners were the 1955 Chevrolet, the 1964 Pontiac GTO and the 1964 Ford Mustang.  Interestingly the proponents of these cars were heralded as heroes but later demonstrated this accolade to be premature as Ed Cole advocated the 1971 Chevrolet Vega, John DeLorean failed with the 1981 DMC-12, and Lee Iacocca tried to kill the minivan program, which basically kept Chrysler in business.  The Vega and DMC-12 made our list of the ten worst cars.

What differentiated success from failure.  First, one needed to correctly predict what the market would want when the car rolled out several years later.  The 1957 Edsel suffered from an unexpected recession. Second, there needed to be a system development process that resulted in the intended vehicle.  This may seem obvious, but capricious decisions by top management were often associated with failures such as the 1982 Cadillac Cimarron and 2001 Pontiac Aztec.

We recently studied 12 cars withdrawn from the market in the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s.  We leveraged hundreds of historical accounts of these decisions, as well as production data for these cars and the market more broadly.  We found that only one vehicle was withdrawn because of the nature of the car.  People were unwilling to pay Packard prices for Studebaker quality, the two companies having merged in 1954.

The failure of the other 11 cars could be attributed to company decisions, market trends, and economic situations.  For example, decisions by the Big Three companies to focus on cost reduction resulted in each manufacturer’s car brands looking identical, effectively de-badging them.  Mercury, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and Pontiac were the casualties.  Honda and Toyota were the beneficiaries.

We worked with Rover on the initial conceptual design of the Mini Cooper, before Rover was bought by BMW, who then brought the Mini Cooper to market.  We considered four stakeholders: young women, young men, young couples, and young couples with children.  The design differences for each stakeholder were interesting.  For example, the back seat plays a different role for couples with children.  Young women and men differ in dashboard preferences.

The original design of the mini Copper broke the mold and revolutionized the auto industry in this segment. Its clever use of space, compact design and excellent road handling led to consumers judging it as a fun, affordable and classic sporty icon.  It moved far beyond its roots as a humble people mover.

Much more recently, attention has shifted to hybrid and battery electric vehicles (BEVs).  Our studies of BEVs have shown that the industry needs to move beyond federal and state subsidies to grow the market.  The increasing commitments of auto OEMs – original equipment manufacturers – suggest that electric drive trains will soon come to dominate the private vehicle market.

Driverless cars are waiting in the wings.  The marketplace for driverless cars has been quite complex and turbulent, laced with enormous hype..  All of the major automakers are working with a range of technology companies.  Investments have been huge, although aspirations have recently mellowed, exemplified by Uber and Lyft selling their driverless car units.  Here are the primary relationships (in alphabetical order):

  • Apple working with Hyundai and Kia
  • Argo AI acquired by Ford and Volkswagen
  • Aurora acquired Uber’s driverless car unit
  • Cruise Automation acquired by GM, Microsoft and Walmart
  • NVIDIA working with Audi, BMW, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla
  • Toyota acquired Lyft’s driverless car unit
  • Waymo (Alphabet) working with Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar, Nissan, Renault, Volvo and Magna

What surprises are ahead?  I think the main surprise is that all the hype was just that, nothing more.  Increasingly capable sensors and smart software will make your vehicle — that you will still drive — safer and more efficient.  Over time, perhaps a decade or so, your vehicle will become capable of driving itself, initially on open highways.  Driverless cars will become pervasive at the pace that unmanned elevators became predominant.

What can be done about surprises?  No amount of due diligence can eliminate them.  Fortunately, most markets are forgiving.  I cherish the Corvette but not the Vega, the Mustang but not the Edsel, and the 1959 Eldorado but not the Cimmaron.  We like to win frequently, but do not expect championship trophies every year.  Even the vaunted Apple had its Lisa and Newton.

Some surprises become market innovations; most do not.  However, surprises can also cause others to innovate.  Technology failures or shortcomings can prompt investigations of how such limitations can be overcome.  The only way for everything to succeed is for all improvements to be only incremental.  Personally, I am glad someone thought of indoor plumbing rather than improved outhouses.

When the Organization Is in the Way

There are times when organizations are performing excellently but, despite their confidence, their futures are not bright.  Kodak and Polaroid dominated the film and instant photography industries, respectively.  My mother inherited a quantity of Kodak stock in the 1930s.  It provided generous returns for several decades.  People would always seek “Kodak moments” and needed a stock of film.  Wouldn’t they?  Well, no.

These companies knew that digital photography would eventually prevail.  Indeed, they invested in R&D that created the technologies that could displace film, instant or otherwise.  However, despite their dominance in their markets, they just couldn’t “pull the trigger” and cannibalize their existing cash flows.  Instead, they let competitors do this, catalyzing their eventual demise.

Why?  Their organizations were totally focused on selling film.  The metrics in their incentive and reward systems were driven by film sales and decreasing costs of production.  They, in effect, provided free cameras to sell film, as Gillette provided free razors to sell blades.  What if consumers wanted pictures, but not prints?  This future was easy to imagine but difficult to accept if your paycheck depended on prints.

What happened to Digital and Xerox?  Digital dominated the minicomputer market and Xerox basically invented personal computing.  I worked extensively with Digital, less so but significantly with Xerox.  I used the 50th PDP-8, of 300,000 sold, to conduct my PhD research at MIT.  Digital “owned” the academic research market.  The DEC System 10 was next, followed by the VAX series, selling 400,000 units.

The rapid rise of the microcomputer, or personal computer, in the late 1980s, and especially the introduction of powerful 32-bit systems in the 1990s, quickly eroded the value of DEC’s systems. DEC’s last major attempt to find a space in the rapidly changing market was the 64-bit Alpha. DEC saw the Alpha as a way to re-implement their VAX series, but also employed it in a range of high-performance workstations. The Alpha processor family, for most of its lifetime, was the fastest processor family on the market. However, high Alpha prices could not compete with lower priced x86 chips from Intel and AMD.

I was heavily involved with DEC in the 1990s helping them plan several new generations of Alpha chip using our product planning toolkit.  One strongly stated objective for each generation was that it retain its Guinness Book of Records status as the fastest processor in the world. This objective dominated even when processing speed provided users minimal benefits.  Technical excellence was highly valued at DEC.  There was a sense that DEC knew what people needed even if they did not.

The Apple II arrived in 1977, followed by the PC in 1981, and the Apple MAC in 1984 with its classic Super Bowl ad.  Many of the appealing features of the MAC were pirated from Xerox.  The document company, Xerox, was still trying to figure out how personal computing would sell more paper.  Between this perspective and unacceptable market pricing, Xerox fumbled the future.

Back at Digital, CEO Ken Olsen discounted the possibility that anyone would want their own computer.  Their DEC Rainbow was clearly too little, too late.  IBM, in contrast, realized the era of developing everything yourself was over and outsourced most everything to strategic suppliers, e.g., Microsoft.  This was too much of a leap for DEC, presaging their disappearance in 1998.

This brings us to communications and cellphones.  I worked extensively with Motorola throughout the 1990s.  Their analog technology dominated the market.  They had invested in digital technology and knew this was the future, but did not want to cannibalize their analog market position.  Other players, such as Nokia and Qualcomm, did not hesitate.  Their digital phones decimated Motorola’s market leadership.

Motorola was still innovating, however. A great example is an R&D investment by Motorola in magnetoresistive random access memory, where data is not stored as electric charge, but by magnetic storage.  The research team developing this technology was requesting $20 million.  Our technology investment analysis tools indicated the net value was $546 million.  After carefully listening to a presentation on the basis of this estimate, the Motorola CEO was sufficiently impressed to commit $40 million with the request that the additional funds be used to reduce risk and accelerate transitioning this technology into their semiconductor business.

The success of this technology contributed to the formation of Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., which was spun off from Motorola in 2004. In 2015, NXP Semiconductors completed its acquisition of Freescale for about $11.8 billion in cash and stock. Including the assumption of Freescale’s debt, the purchase price was about $16.7 billion.  Despite such successes, Motorola’s core communications business was struggling and was sold to Google in 2012 for $12.5 billion, less than the value generated by one significant R&D investment.

Nokia focused on increasingly inexpensive phones and came to dominate the global market.  They could not imagine that their $50 phones could be displaced by Apple’s $500 iPhone.  They were wrong.  Consumers did not realize it, but they wanted versatile digital devices that also included a phone.  Nokia faded and was sold to Microsoft for $7.2 billion.  Microsoft did not fare much better.

Both Motorola and Nokia suffered from being hardware companies that also provided software.  Their technical expertise in hardware was superb.  However, they tended to develop new operating systems for each generation of devices, which was both expensive and slow.  In contrast, Apple’s OS and Samsung’s Android, courtesy of Goggle, provided regular updates to all users, including those using past generations of phones.  The cultures of Motorola and Nokia, as well as Digital, never embraced this approach.

How does the organization get in the way of change?  For all of these cases, organizations had well-developed processes and metrics, which everyone had learned and came to excel in their execution, resulting in bonuses, promotions, and other accolades.  These practices had become embedded in their organizational cultures.  Everyone “knew” how to act and how to succeed.

However, key elements of this organizational system were premised on assumptions that were no longer true.  Many people recognized this.  However, it was not socially acceptable to articulate these perceptions.  People felt that they needed to maintain focus on keeping the predominant business model functioning and producing.  That’s what they did until this no longer worked.

All six of these companies were founded with excellent core technology competencies and compelling value propositions.  They each led their markets at some point, in some cases for many years.  The designs of their organizations, indeed their organizational values and norms, were driven by how they achieved this success.  Over time, their markets evolved, typically driven by competitors’ offerings.  These companies did not evolve in step with their markets.  Their value propositions become obsolete.

Joseph Schumpeter has termed this process “creative destruction.”  New value propositions are embraced by markets and incumbent competitors fade.  This is great for consumers and the economy.  However, as these examples illustrate, creative destruction is terrible for the incumbents that cannot adapt.  Consequently, the average number of years a successful company remains in the Fortune 500 continually decreases – from over 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 years today.

N-Factor Authentication

2-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security to your account to prevent someone from logging in, even if they have your password. This extra security measure requires you to verify your identity using a randomized multi-digit code that your service provider texts to you each time that you attempt to log in.  Alternatively, they may call you and ask you to verify that you are trying to log in.

New technology has emerged that can divert these texts and calls to a third party that pretends to be you.  They can mimic your voice, answer your security questions, and show their location as yours despite their being far away.  This has prompted service providers to add new levels of authentication.  The industry is calling it N-factor authentication.

Via your Apple watch, or equivalent, they can sense and decode your DNA is real time. If they can sense that you are holding the phone, you will be admitted to the service.  Next-generation phones will be able to sense what you ate for your last meal.  If you respond correctly to this phone query about what you ate, you will be admitted to the service.

Some of these levels have been criticized as intrusive.  If your blood alcohol content (BAC) level exceeds legal levels in your state, you will not be able to access your accounts or, for that matter, start your vehicle.  Your phone will still work so you can call for a ride.  However, your credit card will not be authorized if you decide to have one for the road.

What if the authentication system is wrong?  It sensed you ate cauliflower, but you actually had broccoli.  What’s your recourse?  You can submit your claim to the State Authentication Agency.  There is an online claim form, which makes it easy if you can prove you are who you say you are.  What did you eat for lunch? 

How We Adopted Regrettable Practices

I recently finished reading Patrick Wyman’s The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World: 1480-1520 (Grand Central, 2021).  He chronicles the transformation of business and political processes during these two decades that provided the foundations for Western European dominance over the successive generations.

Military aggression and conquest, financed by new approaches to debt and repayment, dominated the 15th and 16th centuries.  The business challenges of empty ships sailing back from Africa were addressed by the trade in slaves.  America’s embrace of the slave trade in the 17th century simply reflected business best practices of the times.  Finances dominated any sense of ethics or fairness.

Many of the unfortunate practices that we eschew today have deep-seated roots over centuries or longer.  Slavery predominates our consciousness today, but mistreatment and degradation of indigenous people and women has a long history as well.  Degradation of the environment has long been the stock and trade of colonizers and immigrants.  Exploitation of natural resources has been an economic prerogative for millennia.

Exploitation for the benefit of the prevailing castes has long dominated human activities.  As Warren Buffett has characterized it, the progeny of the “lucky sperm club” accumulate wealth and other benefits to the detriment of the not so lucky.  This is not at all a new phenomenon and has not been an accident.  It has been with us throughout human history.

Perhaps this is inevitable.  Humans hunt bears for meat and hides.  Bears eat meat and big fish.  Big fish eat smaller fish. Small fish eat plankton and algae.  Does this food chain model apply to relationships among humans?  Is it inevitable that the lucky sperm club gets to “eat” lessor humans?  Few people would agree with this. 

However, what can be done to overcome this seemingly natural tendency?  Reparations have been discussed.  How might we compensate blacks for having endured slavery for 500 years? How can we compensate  indigenous people and women for having endured mistreatment and degradation for several millennia?  We might write large checks – millions of dollars – to each of hundreds of millions of people.  We could devote the whole GDP and more to reparations.

Would this work?  Would diversity, equity, and inclusion now be balanced and fair?  I doubt it.  Large numbers of people would have large amounts of money – briefly.  Those steeped in the tendency to exploit others would quickly figure out how to secure these funds with bogus promises and propositions.  The privileged castes would soon have again secured all these resources for themselves.

Instead, these resources need to be invested in helping everyone to be prepared, participate, and prosper in the future economy.  Everyone needs to be able to differentiate opportunities from scams.  Everyone needs to be able to differentiate bluster from well-reasoned projections.  Everyone needs to learn how to identify and scorn baseless rhetoric and fear mongering.

We need a renaissance in American education.  People need to understand why things are the way they are, for better or worse.  People need to understand evidence-based assessments versus empty bloviations.  The media needs to be held accountable for their support of empty bloviations.   Advertisers need to quickly curtail investment in these empty bloviators.  The integrity of the media needs to be restored.

Above all, we need a well-educated and well-informed American electorate.  We need a population that has no patience with bull shit.  We need a voting population that holds politicians accountable.  Politicians who posture, lie, and try to compensate for poorly-held positions should face stunning defeats in elections.  This requires a well-educated and well-informed electorate.  This has to be a priority.

Education and communications are the keys.  Education obviously needs to include reading, math, and science, but also civics – how the government works.  The teaching of civics has declined in recent decades, apparently due in part to efforts to improve test scores in reading and math.  We need every citizen to be sufficiently educated to reach well-informed decisions.  Everyone.

We also need to fix communications.  This requires authoritative assessments of communicated assertions and conclusions.  This might involve every communication, whether from news media or social media, being labeled with a rating.  This might even include anyone’s Facebook posts or personal emails.  Of course, most people have no way of knowing whether their communications are based on sound evidence.

More importantly, every assertion by newscasters on CNN or Fox would be rated.  Over time, people would know which commentators are reliable and which ones are usually communicating unsupported assertions.  Rating services would emerge that provide assessments of commentators and pundits.  Educated citizens would understand these assessments and turn to those that can be trusted.

Dissemblers would be seen as entertainers and perhaps comedians, although their assertions and rants seldom prompt chuckles.  The media would cease to report such diatribes because savvy advertisers would not want their brands associated with such people.  These people would be left to social media, at least those outlets that did not ban their postings.  Facebook’s recent troubles suggests this might actually happen.

Research Questions

Research involves pursuing answers to questions.  How can I reset the clocks on my kitchen appliances?  A Google search usually provides a ready answer to this question.  One would not think of publishing an article on having answered this question, nor would any media outlet encourage such a publication.

Do I have any bakers’ yeast?  This leads to researching the cupboards and perhaps the refrigerator.  This research leads to a yes or no conclusion.  One would not think of publishing an article on having found the yeast.  Despite the success of this research, there is no generalizable finding to be reported.

Who killed Roger Ackroyd?  Agatha Christie reported on the research to answer this question.  Hercule Poirot sleuths his way to determining James Sheppard to be the killer.  Poirot confronts Sheppard who commits suicide.  The research question was answered but, as intriguing as the story may be, little is added our knowledge of murder.

Scientific research involves seeking answers to real, rather than fictional, questions to which there are no “off the shelf” answers.  Scientific research also involves addressing questions whose answers are of broad importance.  No one knows what I want for lunch, although no one but me or the waiter at the pub really knows the answer.

So, scientific research addresses important questions where are no existing sources of answers.  Research sponsors can tell us what questions are important to them, but it may be that answers are available, but not readily apparent.  Thus, the first consideration is whether existing answers can be found.

In recent years, most people would start by searching Google.  I just searched on “Do pickles affect icebergs?” It resulted in 28 million “hits.”  At 10 minutes per hit, it would take me 25 years to reviews this corpus.  Fortunately, there are much more powerful and efficient ways to approach this need.

I recently pursued the question, “What are the patient states and transition probabilities in substance abuse?”  Using the Curis Meditor research portal (www.CurisMeditor.com), hosted on the Northern Light SinglePoint platform, I searched 40 million research articles to identify 250 highly relevant articles, mostly medical research articles.

I then used Northern Light’s machine learning capabilities to “read” these articles and provide relevant insights.  From these insights, and fully reading several articles, I formulated an evidence-based state model of substance abuse.  This process required 6 hours, not the months required if I had solely relied on Google.

This state model of substance abuse provided an evidence-based hypothesis.  We might have used this model to predict the future course of substance abuse.  However, we were interested in whether new social interventions might help diminish opioid abuse.  In other words, we wanted to  explore “what if?” rather than “what is?”  How do you address a research address questions regarding what might happen versus what will happen if the future replicates the past?

We could assume that estimates of current states are good predictions of future states.  If the future interventions of interest are intended to affect the independent variables of the statistical model of current outcomes, it might be reasonable to assume that this the model of “what is?” can reasonably predict the future.  But, if these interventions have not been previously employed, this assumption is questionable. 

More typical are situations where models of the past cannot provide acceptable predictions of the future.  Then, we cannot construct our model by totally relying on past and current data.  Other than relying on psychics or other prognostications, we need to start with first principles to formulate a mathematical model of the phenomena underlying the prospect of predicting possible answers to our research question.

What are first principles?  There are a rich set of principles for dynamic motion, e.g., F=MA and E=MC2, electrical current, e.g., E=RI, and fluid mechanics, e.g., Q=VA.  There are also principles that cut across physical domains such as continuity (e.g., of mass and energy) and conservation of momentum. 

What about behavioral and social phenomena?  There are models of human behaviors related to driving cars and piloting airplanes, troubleshooting failures, coordinating multiple tasks and other human-system oriented tasks.  The ability to formulate such models is abetted by the requirements for humans to conform to the constraints of the systems they are operating and maintaining.

Social phenomena of interest for our research on opioid abuse concern how people relate to each other via their social networks.  In particular, it has been found that current addicts can be coached into recovery by former addicts – termed peer recovery coaches.  Thus, the model used to address this research question had to include a representation of each person’s social network and the status of the members of the network, i.e., susceptible, addicted, in recovery, etc.

We used this model to address a rather unfortunate real-world experiment as the coronavirus caused the isolation of people from their social networks.  Our model predicted that this would lead to increasing instance of overdoses and deaths. This is what happened in Washington, DC and elsewhere.  The predictions of our model were in the ballpark of the actual measurements.

Does this validate our model?  This question involves several subtleties.  At one level, did we answer the research question?  Yes, we did.  Was the answer “correct”?  We certainly did not accurately predict the exact number of overdoses and deaths.  So, perhaps the answer is “no.”  Were our predictions in the range of possibilities that could have happened?  The answer is arguably “yes.”

Consider our abilities to predict the paths and intensities of hurricanes.  There are multiple American and European models for making these predictions.  Weather forecasters rely on all of them to inform them on the range of possible futures.  The key is to understand what might happen by computing possible futures, knowing that a point prediction of what will happen is inevitably wrong.  I explore this notion in great depth in Computing Possible Futures (Oxford, 2019).

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Charles Dickens’ immortal phrase portrays a time of radical opposites taking place at the same time in a 1859 historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  Are we at a similar time of radical contrasts?  Are similar consequences likely?

Current technology and economic trends portend astounding improvements of health and education, as well as productivity in general.  Yet, perhaps almost half the US population is not prepared to share in the prosperity.  The education needed to participate in the skilled technical workforce is not widely available.

The half of the population that feels left behind resents the other half of the population.  Politicians and various pundits have taken advantage of this pervasive resentment.  The result has been insurrection at the Capitol, not quite up to the assault on the Bastille in 1789, but the largest assault on the Capitol since 1814.

What does all this portend?  We might expect wise and prudent political leaders to orchestrate compromises that assuage the anger from both sides.  However, these leaders are focused on re-election and need the support of the angry political bases.  Hence, we risk stasis, nothing being done other than cultivating distrust and anger.

Fortunately, the private sector is investing and innovating to create jobs and economic growth.  A significant portion of these investments need to focus on creating the workforce, and consequently the consumers, needed for success.  This can involve partnering with high schools and community colleges to educate the workforce.

I am reminded of William Hartsfield’s slogan of the early 1960s when, as Mayor of Atlanta, he characterized the city as “too busy to hate.”  We need to get busy, investing in people to enable well-paying jobs and economic growth that benefits everyone.  The private sector must play a very significant role in this as the public sector, with its current stasis, cannot competently address the challenge.

Who Wants to Change?

What would you like to change?  Your eating habits and weight?  Your exercise habits and fitness?  Your salary and financial situation?  What about your opinions.  How about your fundamental beliefs? 

It is much easier to avoid eating fried foods than to avoid flawed thinking.  Entertaining evidence that shows your opinions and beliefs to be simply wrong is very difficult to do.  Almost all of us avoid this to some extent.

But what is evidence?  If we measure the width of our laundry door and determine that the new dryer will not make it through the door, we seldom seek another source of measurement.  The dryer simply won’t fit.

However, we are making these measurements ourselves with agreed upon measurement tools.  Most of the evidence we consider is not so pristine.  We do not have the tools and we do not make the measurements.  We have to trust others.

Consider the “simple” question of whether you have diabetes.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “A fasting blood sugar level less than 100 mg/dL is normal. A fasting blood sugar level from 100 to 125 mg/dL is considered prediabetes. If it’s 126 mg/dL or higher on two separate tests, you have diabetes.”

So, 125 is sort of ok and 126 is bad.  Why?  It is a rule of thumb that seems to work in terms of predicting what interventions are needed to control diabetes via various medical interventions.  Why did nature set this threshold?  Nature didn’t; we did and it has seemed to help controlling diabetes.

Yet, it seems rather arbitrary.  18 years old for voting, 21 years old for drinking, 30 BMI for obesity are other examples.  A BMI of 29 is fine and 31 is horrible.  These rules of thumb, sometimes embodied in laws and regulations, are reasonable but certainly not “correct.”  They simply reflect administrative, regulatory, legal, and perhaps social agreements.

What about vaccines?  The medical evidence is pretty clear, but many people are more comfortable taking horse worm treatments rather than FDA approved coronavirus vaccines.  There is much evidence to support the latter and no evidence to support the former.  Should we accept Kristi Noem’s, governor of south Dakota, assertion that “everyone has a right to die”?  Do they have the right to kill others in the process?

This raises the question of “Who’s liable?”  Should governor Noem be liable for advocating policies that result in many deaths?   What if every politician was criminally liable for any assertion they made that was provably false?  If found guilty, they could not run for any other federal office and would not be eligible for any federal benefits.  If particularly egregious, they would face federal felony convictions and imprisonment.

That would certainly weed out the politician population, but housing all the felons would be a challenge.  The change we actually want is for people in leadership positions to be thoughtful and truthful.  This brings us back to evidence.  How does anyone know if what they are saying is “true”?  Are people just repeating what they heard?  That might have worked when we all listened to Walter Cronkite, but this era of social media has made everyone – and consequently no one – a trusted authority.

If you cannot really trust anyone, then those whose opinions and beliefs align with yours are the most palatable and digestible.  There is no need to change opinions and beliefs because you are already right.  Everybody feels quite comfortable hunkering down in their comfort zone and lashing out at people with differing opinions and beliefs.  The resulting tribal polarization leads to camps rather than communities.  That seems to be where we are.

So, no one wants to change.  We want our predispositions to be affirmed.  Learning and changing positions requires too much work.  It is much easier to believe that everyone else is wrong. 

Failures of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2004) provide compelling evidence for how complex societies fail.  I am not going to rigorously follow their analyses.  However, I am going to leverage their insights into the sources of failures.

Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions.  Societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.  In other words, the levels of complexity overwhelm resources.

Diamond argues that deforestation, pollution, soil depletion (or erosion), climate change, and hostile neighbors lead to diminishing competitive advantages.  While Tainter focuses on organizational missteps, Diamond emphasizes natural resources as wee al political and social adversaries.

Where are we headed? Three scenarios seem plausible:

  • We will get beyond the current landscape of challenges to new levels of technological innovation and prosperity
  • We will try to maintain the status quo, but societal services will eventually be overtaxed and under resourced leading to significant curtailments of services
  • Marginalized constituencies, on the left and right, will revolt leading to new radical leadership and capital flight to other, less-threatening venues

How might we know which scenarios are emerging?  Here are a few leading indicators:

  • Innovation and Prosperity: New starts, venture capital, acquisitions and/or IPOs
  • Curtailments of Services: Budget deficits, decreasing investments, public sentiment
  • Revolt and New Leadership: Protests, primary fights, changing of the guard

What should we do?  We need to balance risks across alternative futures.  This should include investments in “options” on alternative futures.  In other words, avoid big bets on one possible future.  We also need to manage failure scenarios across ecosystems such as health, education, energy, finance, etc.

We also need to be flexible and adaptive if society, as we know it, disappears.  This requires resources imbued with flexibility and adaptivity.  This could mean stockpiling canned goods and toilet paper in the basement.  More important, however, is an outlook that expects change and is open to new ways of addressing it.  This means questioning the sustainability of the status quo, particularly the underlying assumptions.

Complex Societies

Our society is amazingly complex.  It serves an enormous number of purposes.  An overarching goal is to persist.  Without persistence, society could not serve all its other purposes.  However, these purposes often compete and conflict for attention and resources. 

I have spent much time trying to improve defense systems from my commissioning as an Air Force officer 50 years ago, to serving on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board for two terms, to membership on numerous advisory and study committees.  The education has been wonderful.  My impact, it seems to me, has been marginal.

For the past two plus decades, I have addressed healthcare delivery.  My focus has been on the complex adaptive system of health and wellness.  This research seemed to gain attention among thought leaders.  We managed to get health enterprises to rethink their organization and operations.

For almost a decade, I have studied how higher education is organized, incentivized, and responds to strategic challenges.  We have published several compelling analyses.  However, leaders in academia tend to be stewards of the status quo.  Projections of substantial challenges are only of interest if they will occur during their times in office.

In recent years, I have addressed energy and climate change, to both mitigate global warming and mitigate the consequences of global warming.  This challenge cuts across society and threatens enormous vested interests, including consumers’ insatiable appetite for energy for transportation, food, and heating/cooling.

Security, healthcare, education, and energy all interact across the fabric of society.  There is also water, food, transportation, finance, retail, etc.  These interactions can be considered at both macroeconomic and microeconomic levels.  The Federal Reserve Bank uses the FRB/US model of the U.S. economy and other tools to simulate the macroeconomics of the overall economy.

Microeconomics is concerned with firm-level behaviors, which include decisions about product and service offerings, strategic and tactical investments, pricing of offerings, workforce development, etc.  These decisions are addressed in the expected macroeconomic context of broad competitive forces, as well as interest rates, inflation, etc.

The central actors in our complex society are firms and families, which sometimes are synonymous, e.g., Cargill, Dell, DuPont, Ford, and Walmart.  Government may define the macroeconomic puzzle, but firms and families provide the puzzle pieces.  Their decisions and behaviors determine what is produced, how it is priced, and what is purchased.

The organizational and social system of all these intelligent agents is often termed a complex adaptive system.  Such systems can be influenced, e.g., by tax policies, but they cannot be controlled.  This is due to the abilities of the intelligent agents to learn, adapt, and self-organize.  They figure out ways around rules, incentives, and penalties.  When society eventually recognizes these workarounds, it prohibits them or acknowledges than as innovations and encourages them.

In these ways, these microeconomic innovators disrupt the macroeconomic landscape, which may benefit everyone in the long term.  This reminds me of John Maynard Keynes famous statement in 1923, “In the long run, we are all dead.”  My interpretation is that we should avoid investments that are painful in the short-term and mid-term, and with highly uncertain benefits in the long term.  The microeconomic innovators have no patience with such odds.

Times of Ruffians

We are facing broadly-based attacks by the latest ruffians, supported by their Republican and media co-conspirators.  This has repeatedly happened before.  What can we learn from these incursions of barbarians?  Masses of uneducated, illiterate ruffians overwhelmed everyday citizens.  Social consciousness and civic pride meant absolutely nothing.  It was survival of the fittest. 

The Visigoths were an early Germanic people that emerged from earlier Gothic groups who had moved into the Roman Empire and played a major role in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.  They were soon followed by the Vandals, another Germanic people who established Vandal kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean islands, and North Africa in the 5th century.

The Sack of Rome in 410 AD was undertaken by the Visigoths led by their king, Alaric. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital but retained a paramount position as “the eternal city” and a spiritual center of the Empire. This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy, and the sack was a major shock to contemporaries, friends and foes of the Empire alike.

Attila, frequently called Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He was also the leader of a tribal empire consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, Alans and Bulgars, among others, in Central and Eastern Europe.  Quite some time later, Genghis Khan (1158-1227) was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.

The sack of Constantinople occurred in 1204 and marked the culmination of the Fourth Crusade. Crusader armies captured, looted, and destroyed parts of Constantinople, then the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  A bit later, Ivan IV Vasilyevich commonly known in English as Ivan the Terrible was the grand prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and the first tsar of all Russia from 1547 to 1584.

So, the uneducated and impoverished, economically challenged, and prone to violence segments of our population can sometimes prevail.  However, they eventually overreach, ruthlessly plundering and severely punishing people, who eventually rebel.  A new order is established and ruffians are suppressed.  The new order may also be authoritarian, but liberal democracy may persevere and prosper.  This could take years, decades, or longer.

It does not seem reasonable to wait and hope.  Some combination of carrots and sticks seem warranted.  Carrots could include opportunities, for example training, to join the new economy discussed in my last post.  Sticks could include denial of benefits such as access to air travel or public transit, or perhaps pricing of benefits, e.g., higher health insurance premiums for those not vaccinated.  We can curb extreme ruffian behaviors.  Carrots will attract them to socially beneficial behaviors.  Sticks will make it very inconvenient to continue ruffian behaviors.

But, do we have the collective will to do this?  In contemporary society, ruffians are also voters.  Politicians, whose overarching objective is to get re-elected and retain power, covet these votes.  Thus, they proclaim the ruffians to be patriots.  They offer the ruffians nothing but affirmation, but that is apparently enough.  Ruffians are not looking for policies, programs, or problem solutions.  They want to be recognized as rough, tough, and self-sufficient patriots.  If we think otherwise, we are at risk.

Stories

I have been thinking about the roles stories play in our lives.  By story, I mean an account of past events or the evolution of something.  Of course, a story can also be an entertaining account of imaginary or real people and events.  Many stories provide a combination of explanation and entertainment.

Stories usually have a time frame.  Stories about the past are called history.  Stories about the present are termed news.  Stories about the future may be forecasts or science fiction.  Sources of historical stories may have to be trusted to be believed, as one can seldom “know” they are true.

The types of stories include personal, family and professional.  Stories can address events in neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, and countries.  Religion is laced with stories, as are sports.  Religious services and sporting events tend to be stories in themselves.

Stories serve a variety of purposes.  They can explain what happened, provide guidance on what you should do, and possibly provide predictions of what will happen. Stories can educate in terms of what you need to know and entertain, providing enjoyment.

Stories providing guidance might be rule-based, e.g., the Golden Rule.  Guidance might be expressed as step-by-step procedures, i.e., do A, then B, then C.  Methodologies are less prescriptive, i.e., consider X, then Y, then Z.  Often the guidance is implicit and must be inferred.  Religious leaders and sports coaches may help with this.

Are stories useful?  Stories are a primary way of communicating social and cultural norms.  People understand and remember stories much better than abstract principles.  Family stories can enable people to know the events and connections that knit the family together.  Stories can be quite entertaining, jokes being an exemplar.

How can one know if stories are “true”?  This is tricky.  Did the Holocaust happen?  Did the Apollo astronauts really land on the moon?  Did 911 happen?  There are people who believe that these three things did not happen, or were just staged.  I believed they happened, but have no empirically-based knowledge.  I just believed what I was told.

One might argue that things experienced with your own eyes are real.  However, everything I “know” about these three things is due to television or published materials, not first-hand experiences.  Not much of what any individual knows is based on first-hand experiences.

I had just finished reading a chapter of a children’s history book to one of my young children.  I said to her or him, “That wasn’t just a story.  It really happened.”  They responded immediately, “How do you know that?”  I said that I did not really know, but believed it was true because I trusted the source of the information.

“How do you know who can be trusted?”  They are leaders or teachers who would not mislead us.  “Well, how do they know what happened many years before they were born?”  They trusted somebody else.  I realized their observations were correct.  I believed someone who believed someone else, who believed someone else, etc.

We cannot really “know” the truth of all the stories we have come to believe.  Most of the confluence of stories that influence our lives are, in effect, taken on faith.  However, what if we move beyond assessing whether all stories are true to simply determining which stories are false.  We can refute stories that available data contradict.

This approach is premised on people paying attention to and understanding available data.  Unfortunately, the motivation, knowledge, and skills to do this are far from pervasive in our society.  One third of Americans lack numeracy skills to make calculations with whole numbers and percentages, estimate numbers or quantity, and interpret simple statistics in text or tables.

Beyond these skill deficiencies, there are the psychological biases and heuristics identified by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and other researchers.  For example, people ignore base rates, e.g., the probability of being struck by lightning.  They base probability estimates on their abilities to imagine outcomes happening.  They pay too much attention to statistical noise.  They seek information that confirms preconceptions.

Social media has greatly exacerbated these limitations.  Hordes of self-proclaimed pundits broadcast every story imaginable, targeting those who ardently believe their versions of reality.  In this way, erroneous beliefs are repeatedly reaffirmed.  Marketing research and political polls assess these beliefs and target products and services accordingly – and target political appeals as well, seeking money and votes.

We could ignore this misinformation, chalking it up to first amendment rights.  However, when these story tellers undermine public health and wellness, you have to pause and reflect on the state of affairs.  Are there any limits on freedom of speech and the consequences of what people say and advocate, as well as how they behave?

Do the unvaccinated have the right to cause the increasing deaths of children?  Do politicians have the right to ban protective measures?  People in “stand your ground” states have the right to shoot people they perceive to be threatening.  Might this type of thinking evolve to the point that drivers have the right to kill pedestrians that they perceive to be threatening?  Clearly, social values and norms should limit such behaviors and need to be revisited.  However, consensus in this arena is rapidly diminishing.

Who Pays Taxes

I am in the middle of reading Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom Through the Ages (Princeton University Press, 2021) by Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod.  This delightful volume provides an entertaining history of taxation, which they define as “the extraction of resources by coercive rulers.”  This got me thinking about taxation in the US.

The population of New York City is almost 8.5 million.  65,000 of these people play 51% of the taxes.  In other words, 0.8% of the residents of the city pay 51% of the taxes.  The top 1% of earners nationally – 1.4 million people — pay 40% of federal income taxes.  The top 10% pay 70%.  The top 25% pay 87%.

Is this a good or bad situation?  Let’s just assume that federal, state, and local budgets are a given.  We have to fund these budgets somehow.  Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security consumes 50% of the federal budget, so many millions of people depend on these budgets.  We need the 1% to pay these bills.  Perhaps we could get them to pay for everything.

Double the taxes on the 0.8% of New York residents.  Then, 99.2% of the population of the city would live tax free.  Increase the taxes of the top 1% nationally by 150%.  Then 99% of the US population would live tax free.  Other than for the top earners, the US would be a tax-free country.  I can imagine 99% of the electorate voting for this.

What would the 1% do?  They would certainly lobby to avoid this fate.  As they provide a huge fraction of campaign donations, they might motivate legislative relief.  Yet, the electorate favoring the tax-free model might turn these Members out of office and replace them with tax-free advocates.

The 1% could abandon New York, and then the US.  They could move their investment funds, hedge funds, banks, and corporations to more tax-friendly havens.  Alphabet, Amazon and Apple might be among the first immigrants, followed by Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter.  They would relist on the exchanges of their new home countries.

Without the 1%, taxes on the middle class would have to increase substantially to meet the budget requirements noted above.  This might work if we could greatly increase their incomes.  Here is an extreme scenario.  A one-time redistribution of all the wealth in the world would result in something like $20,000 per person.  What would happen then? 

Perhaps they would all invest in index funds.  Very unlikely.  They would buy food and clothes and perhaps plots of land.  Although, who would own anything to sell?  Slowly but surely, I imagine these expenditures would creep back into the hands of the most talented.  Eventually, we would be back in the same place, perhaps decades or even centuries later.

An alternative strategy would be to use these resources to prepare everyone to fend for themselves in our complex world.  Everyone would be educated.  Appropriate, productive jobs would be created.  New wealth would be created.  A portion of everyone’s $20,000 would be invested in this endeavor.  I can imagine that many would not be pleased that this happened to their allotment.

This sounds overwhelming.  Is there a more straightforward way to achieve income tax equity?  We simply need to increase median per capita income in the US to parity with Sweden (16% higher than US) or, better yet, Singapore (51% higher).  This would increase personal income in the US by $1.5-4.6 trillion.  In 2020, the total income taxes collected in the US was $3.7 trillion.  Thus, the increases due to higher median incomes could easily contribute significantly to the US tax revenue.

How can we increase incomes by 16-51%?  We need higher-paying jobs?  This requires greater productivity for existing jobs or, for new jobs, greater value added.  The 25 million new jobs in the skilled technical workforce, that I have discussed in earlier posts, provide opportunities for substantially higher incomes.  The average starting salary for a new STEM graduate is $70,000; for a non-STEM graduate is it $30,000.  It may be reasonable to assume that the newly minted entrant to the skilled technical workforce will earn $50,000 at the outset.

25 million people earning $50,000 amounts to $1.25 trillion.  Thus, improving the incomes of one-sixth of the US workforce, results in almost achieving the low end of the above goal.  If another 50 million people earn an additional $20,000 due to higher productivity, we add another $1 trillion.  Improving the incomes of just half of the US workforce heads us toward the middle of the above goal.

Achieving these impressive outcomes requires that we provide the US workforce with the knowledge, skills, and tools to be competitive in the global marketplace.  Education, training, and internships will be key.  We can afford this investment because more people will be paying higher taxes, while also enjoying the personal benefits of significantly higher incomes.  And, coercive rulers can still extract resources from the 1%.

How to Get Ahead

Let’s say technology innovations relevant to your enterprise happen every N years.  Further, it takes you M years to decide to adopt an innovation and once adopted the innovation is sustained for L years.  To remain at the forefront, you need at most M = 1 and L = 1.  That way, you will always be on the cutting edge of technology.

Should you focus on reducing M or L?  M means that you are deploying platforms M technology years behind.  L means you are sustaining platforms that are eventually L + M years behind.  Further, should you focus on technologies with small or large N.  For N = 1, the number of years behind equals the number of technology generations behind.

Obviously, the answers to these questions depend on the consequences of being behind.  We need to differentiate competitive versus sustaining technologies.  Competitive advantage decreases by e-A(L+M) for competitive technologies and by B (L+M) for sustaining technologies.  Thus, the losses are either exponential or linear.

We could formulate a few equations at this point, but let’s just think it through. L+M is a major problem unless you have at least one of the following capabilities:

  1. You can upgrade to new technologies whenever they become available
  2. You can adopt technologies before they exist, by investing in options

So, either you are sufficiently fast and flexible to adapt to changes as they happen, or you have invested in technology options that enable rapid execution once uncertainties have waned.  Both of these can contribute to achieving L+M=0.  This is common in commercial industry.

However, defense agencies take 20+ years to agree on requirements for weapon systems platforms they will use for 30-40 years or more.  That’s how you end up with requirements for card readers on ships and floppy disks on airplanes.  There has to be a better way.

Capabilities 1 and 2 above can change the game, except for one fundamental hurdle.  The “waterfall” of mission to requirements to capabilities is in the way, often stretching the process over decades.  A “spiral” model would enable addressing missions, requirements, and capabilities in parallel.

The waterfall model reflects the supposed arms-length relationship between government and industry.  However, with many defense markets now effectively monopolies or duopolies, government-industry relationships could benefit from discarding this outmoded model.

Here is a possible approach.  New mission needs are addressed by teams of users, technologists, and payers.  Their goal is to synthesize alternative concepts for meeting these needs, for example, a human piloted aircraft, a remotely piloted aircraft, and a swarm of drones.  Their task is not to determine the requirements for each concept.  Instead, perhaps using three teams, they are to formulate a conceptual design for each alternative.

One or more of these conceptual designs in then chosen for detailed design and development by the same team, likely expanded to include additional competencies, for instance, test and evaluation.  This team is not working from requirements because no one will be asked to bid on meeting requirements.  Instead, government and industry, and perhaps academia, will collaborate to synthesize and refine detailed designs and specifications.

These specifications will be issued in an RFP for competitive bids to manufacture the fully designed solution.  These bids will not include design and development as that will have been completed.  Instead, the bids will be limited to fixed-cost production proposals.  Nevertheless, the production workforce so dear to Members of Congress will likely be sustained in their districts. 

By replacing the charade of market-based competitions, the time from concept to deployment can be substantially reduced.  Since time is money, the costs of systems will also be very significantly decreased.  If options-based thinking is embedded in the design and development processes, capabilities 1 and 2 noted above will be inherent.

How will this impact industry?  The work needed will be streamlined, for example, by eliminating the onerous requirements process.  Industry will support design and development via time and materials contracts.  Consequently, all intellectual property, except for manufacturing processes, will be government owned.  As production contracts will be fixed price, industry can add any level of profits they think will be competitive.  Industry’s proposed fixed unit price will not be audited.

I understand that this would be a dramatic change in how government and industry do business.  Consequently, it would be could to pilot test this approach on a set of mission needs where L+M problems are imposing severe risks of not creating needed competitive advantages.  Once successful and refined, this approach could be applied more broadly.

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.