Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Doing some (over)thinking

So those of you who stop by every once in a while have no doubt noticed my lack of posting and perhaps assumed that I've given up blogging. And, in the sense that I haven't, you know, blogged, you'd be right. However, I don't intend this to be a permanent state of affairs. Rather, I'm trying to think of a way to make this blog more useful than it is in its current format.

 When I started, my intention was to focus on longer term trends that would define the future we're all going to live in. However, the craziness of our world in the last few years, especially politically, has made it hard to confidently predict what is coming even a week from now, never mind what may occur in 2200, as I once tried to do. So I made the blog more personal, even changing the name from Sketches of Tomorrow to Mister Overthinker. But I really don't think that personal blogs can sustainably be much more than exhibitionist journal-keeping, and I couldn't care less about that, so my interest rapidly faded.

 So I've been taking a breather, thinking about topics and themes that I'd want to explore. Here is my partial list:

1) Healthcare
2) Communications and Marketing
3) Cultural Trends
4) The (Potential) Collapse of Western Civilization
5) Technological Development
6) Whiskey

 There is some interplay of those topics that would make a blog that I would want to read. Just have to figure out what it is. And when I do, I'll be back at it.

 Thanks for reading,


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Links and a Plug: 10/16

Sometimes you read a piece by a writer you really admire (and I do greatly admire Williamson's work) and are disheartened to discover you find his latest argument ridiculous. I don't know if we should tax Wall Street investment earnings as income, but to contend that this is going to lead to them all getting 70% raises is absurd. If the money was there for them to be paid 70% more, would they be leaving it on the table now out of goodwill? Are their clients not sensitive to any price increases that would support a 70% raise? To imply that raising taxes on finance guys will just cause those evil magicians to conjure up more income ascribes to them a level of power that would make leftist critiques of capitalism a lot more valid. Hell, if I thought these guys could collectively jack up their salaries like that, I'd be sitting in a drum circle with the hippies downtown right now.

Is your city Greece? Pennsylvania's capital city (Harrisburg, for those of you who have forgotten 4th grade geography) is going bankrupt, and it looks like many other cities in the Northeast, California and elsewhere could be right behind. So ask yourself: if you think debates in Congress are ugly, what is it going to look like when your town council announces they can't pay the police force? (Bonus link: Michael Lewis captured the despair of bankrupt cities magnificently in this piece for Vanity Fair.)

PLUG: Many of you probably saw Arcade Fire's customizable video for "The Wilderness Downtown". Now that same technology has been used by State Farm to blow up your house. Check it out here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Two Links and a Plug

For months, I've been meaning to start directing people to some of the many interesting things I find myself reading. I've also wanted to share some of the cool stuff that's happening at Google. Thus, this format. As often as I have the time and material, I'm going to share two articles I think are worth your time, and one Google or YouTube creation you might enjoy experiencing. I won't be promoting these too often, so please check back if you're interested.

For stimulus to work, we must be stupid: I've been reading a lot about why we seem out of tools to fix the economy. I even wrote a piece about it about a month back. But I think this article on the limits of Keynesianism, and in particular how the theories of this year's Nobel Prize winners tell us that we should expect our traditional economic levers to fail as people start paying more attention.

An article I am too afraid to send to my wife: Is this finally proof that baby brain drain is real? (And does the same thing happen to men? Because it feels like it sometimes.)

PLUG: Spacelab channel launches on YouTube: This is a great use of the Internet's power to inspire and encourage people (in this case young people) to open their minds to new ideas and new possibilities. And how awesome would it be if some kid's experiment actually leads to a significant discovery?

Enjoy, and if you have any suggestions for stuff to feature, please send it my way.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

All Patriotism is Local

Peggy Noonan writes, teasingly, about a resurgence of patriotism in our country. As someone who thinks the Samuel Johnson line, "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", is one of the most abused sayings in English, I would welcome such a development. But I say teasingly because there doesn't seem to be any data to support that proposition, and my personal experience hints that, if such patriotism exists at all, it is an inch deep. She writes:
The untapped patriotism out there—if it were electricity, it would remake the grid and light up the world. And it’s among all professions, classes and groups, from the boardroom to the Tea Party meeting to the pediatric ICU.

We think patriotism reached its height after 9/11, but I think it is reaching some new height now, and we’re only beginning to notice.
But how is that patriotism manifesting itself? In ever-more-bitter national politics? In endless wrangling over a government solution to economic problems that are fundamentally due to our failure as a people to work hard, be thrifty and innovate? If the result of this patriotism is that 2012 becomes a year remembered for the most bitter presidential election in history, then I say our patriotic energies were wasted no matter the outcome.

What we seem to have forgotten is that "love of country" is an abstraction until it is tied to particular behavior in a particular place. The college grad who does "Teach for America" is helping a small number of kids in a certain city. Same with the person who does Habitat for Humanity on the weekends: it's not 'humanity' that they help, but a small number of families who get much-needed homes. We only talk about these larger abstract terms because we want a convenient shorthand to describe similar actions taken by thousands or millions of people.

So the reason I think Noonan's patriotism is so paper-thin is that most people will not be doing anything concrete to act on it. There's simply no outlet for their energy, because all of the focus is on who's running the show as President, and what the federal government should do (or fails to do). Well, guess what: anyone reading this is not going have any influence on whether Obama or Republican X becomes the next leader of the free world, or what they do in that role.

Which brings me, I suppose, to both why I am a conservative and why I'm something of a hypocrite. I think the best hope for our country is to get back to people directing their patriotic and political energies to the local, to the concrete. If Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or Herman Cain wins an election in 13 months, that doesn't mean anything has been solved, or improvement in our economy or culture is much more likely. People need to start making changes locally that can bubble up and improve the country as a whole. I'm a conservative because I think that government, at the national and sometimes even at the state level, impedes that happening by nationalizing every problem and convincing people that someone in Washington will 'do something' for them. I'm a hypocrite because I don't do enough locally to back up that conviction. (But, I hope to here in beautiful Maplewood.)

A million people doing something for their town or their neighbor is going to accomplish a lot more than a million people campaigning for a president or a party. If you love your country, help your neighbor.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Won't You Be My President?

My wife has had to put up with my enthusiasm for Chris Christie for a while now: she strongly suspects that he was the reason we bought a house here in New Jersey. I think he is the rare politician who makes his position crystal clear in almost all circumstances, and I think he understands the severity of the financial problems that plague our nation and is prepared to do something about them, even if it is difficult.

I was a bit disappointed when he dismissed the idea of running for President earlier this year, but I respected that he thought he wasn't ready for the job. And at that time, I thought Mitch Daniels would be the best possible Republican candidate. And hey, I'm selfish: I wanted to keep him as my governor, if only to protect me from additional property tax hikes.

Now, of course, there are rumors swirling that Christie is reconsidering his earlier decision. (And it would be a reversal of some very clear statements that he was not running.) On the one hand, this would cut against one of the most appealing aspects of his personality: that you can really believe what he says. On the other hand, I am reminded of a scene in the movie Gladiator:
Emperor Marcus Aurelius (to General Maximus): I want you to become the protector of Rome after I die. I will empower you to one end alone: to give power back to the people of Rome...and end the corruption that has crippled it. Will you accept this great honor that I have offered you?
Maximus: With all my heart, no.
Emperor: Maximus...that is why it must be you.
Now, Chris Christie isn't an action hero. (He doesn't have the physique for it...) But I believe this moment calls for a man who has a sense of duty, a man who doesn't necessarily want the Presidency for reasons of vanity or to wield power, but because he sees a job that must be done and is willing to do it.

I think the financial foundation of this country is crumbling, and I am willing to do what I can to support someone who understands that and will give it his all to fix the problem, especially if that person has a track record of making progress on these types of issues. I'm also looking for a person who can articulate the problem and its solution in a way that might inspire people to support the difficult choices that must be made. Which is why I am so heartened by a speech Christie gave tonight at the Reagan Library, and especially by this quote:
I believe in what this country and its citizens can accomplish if they understand what is being asked of them and how we all will benefit if they meet the challenge.

There is no doubt in my mind that we, as a country and as a people, are up for the challenge. Our democracy is strong; our economy is the world’s largest. Innovation and risk-taking is in our collective DNA. There is no better place for investment. Above all, we have a demonstrated record as a people and a nation of rising up to meet challenges.

Today, the biggest challenge we must meet is the one we present to ourselves. To not become a nation that places entitlement ahead of accomplishment. To not become a country that places comfortable lies ahead of difficult truths. To not become a people that thinks so little of ourselves that we demand no sacrifice from each other. We are a better people than that; and we must demand a better nation than that.
I don't know if a politician like Chris Christie can become our President. But I hope he takes the daunting step of running, so we can find out. Because the candidates we have now, including our current President, are far more likely to perpetuate our problems than to solve them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Son is Making Me a Girlie Man

The latest scientific study to get big press is one from Northwestern University that demonstrates men undergo a large drop in their testosterone levels when they become fathers. Previous studies did not show if testosterone dropped when children arrived, or if men with lower testosterone were likely to have children. But now there is proof that becoming a father sucks the manliness right out of you. And the effect is even more pronounced if the father takes a significant role in child rearing, meaning that my cute little son is actually a diaper-soiling male hormone remover. (See! I publicly used the word 'cute'.)

Maybe I wouldn't be so distraught, but the researchers make testosterone sound pretty damned awesome:
While scientists still argue over testosterone's exact function, it's fairly clear it provides a boost to confidence, increases competitiveness, and orients men to achieve more in the social world, said Christopher W. Kuzawa, co-author of the study and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.
Don't worry, though, because I can't imagine any downsides from being less confident, competitive and outgoing. Nope, everything should be just fine.

All joking aside, the article, and apparently the underlying research, do a terrible job of thinking through what this drop in testosterone might mean, instead going with the pat answer that having less of the quintessentially male hormone will make men more 'nurturing' and 'caring'. First, hormones (like most of the other inputs into our biological functioning) aren't simple dials. You don't turn the testosterone way down to make men take on traditional feminine roles. Second, it seems unlikely evolution would be geared to radically lower a 'confidence' hormone when a man is going to have to take on a big new challenge and provide for a growing family. So let me offer some more nuanced takes on why testosterone levels might drop in new fathers:

1) Fewer stupid risks: It seems apparent that young men are often primed to be daredevils, taking crazy chances with little thought to consequences. Maybe this originally evolved to give males the courage to charge into battle when provoked. At any rate, dialing down the big T might help a new father pause before he charges someone with a club, or goes out racing on his dirt bike.

2) Open a bonding window: Children are likely to get more paternal affection and protection through life if they form a connection early on, and a lowering level of testosterone level could bring down the desire to socialize enough to keep dad around more. Less time at the pub means more time with the new baby.

3) Aid to fidelity: Let's be honest: new baby time isn't sexy time. Maybe evolution or a merciful God brings down testosterone levels in new fathers so they don't go crazy during the time when their wives can't imagine using the bed for anything other than sleeping.

Whatever the full explanation, I've decided to forgive my son for any decline in testosterone he might be inflicting on me. And I've realized another benefit of this study: if we can make sure the male cast members of Jersey Shore hear about it, we can be pretty confident they'll never procreate.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Stimulus isn't Stimulating

Obama's jobs bill (so named, presumably, on the theory that no one could be against jobs) (and yes, I know the Republicans do the same sleazy thing, for example with the Patriot Act) has renewed the debate over stimulus: whether we need it, how much good it does, and how big it should be. Conservative writers I respect, like Ross Douthat have offered measured voices of approval, but generally reaction to the plan breaks along partisan lines. The Wall Street Journal offers the conventional conservative perspective:

With $4 trillion in debt in three years, it is hard to see how another $400 billion in debt will lead to more economic growth and job creation. We've already had the biggest Keynesian stimulus in 60 years, and the result has been more than a million job losses since January 2009.
That $4 trillion number really jumps out, but in this case the conservative desire to bash Obama is hiding the true scope of the problem. While borrowing has accelerated since Obama was elected, G.W. Bush was borrowing on a scale almost as extreme. By looking at Obama's decisions in isolation, we lack the context to ask a fundamental question: are these stimulus measures doomed to failure because our economy was already highly stimulated before the recession even started?

The chart above shows the annual level of borrowing from 1990 through 2010. During the early 1990's, we see the level of borrowing peak at the end of Bush the First's presidency, and decline until we actually had a small surplus at the end of Clinton's second term. And then things reverse, the line trending up almost as steeply as it does during Obama's time in office. Why? Because Bush the Second decided to 'give back' the surplus in the form of tax cuts, and then the 9/11 attacks both hurt the economy and led to unpaid-for wars.

If the essence of stimulus is that the government borrows to increase overall demand in the economy, than the 2002-2004 saw a massive, if unnamed, stimulus effort. And perhaps it worked. The economy didn't go into a severe recession after 9/11, so perhaps it had some sort of effect. Add to that the historically low interest rates and loose borrowing standards that led to a massive injection of private credit spending into the economy, and we had a truly massive "stealth stimulus."

Now, before those borrowing levels even had a chance to go down much, the crash of 2008 hit and government borrowing quickly spiked to the trillion-plus levels to which we've now sadly become accustomed. But why hasn't deficit spending, this time specifically structured to be 'stimulative', had the desired effect?

I think there are three potential explanations:

1) The fundamentals of the economy are so bad that much more deficit spending is needed to have an effect. (The Krugman thesis)
2) Stimulus doesn't really work, especially if the numbers we're borrowing are so high that lenders and investors doubt we can pay it back (The Republican thesis)
3) Stimulus has to be temporary to work, and we already had one last decade that we haven't even started to pay off. (My lonely theory)

Whether the first explanation is true or not is really academic: to borrow a significantly higher amount was never going to be politically feasible. (And could any recovery be strong enough to pay off the incurred debt in a reasonable period?)

But I think the second explanation, much loved by conservatives, risks positioning the Republican party as do-nothings who aren't trying to help the jobless. As Jacob Weisberg wrote recently on Slate.com, "Pick up any standard economics textbook, and it will explain how governments respond to cyclical downturns with temporary deficit spending." You can fight this argument, or you can concede it and point out that we have had a decade of unprecedented stimulus, and there is no longer anything temporary about our deficit spending. A simple question to ask your pro-stimulus friends (or for the eventual Republican nominee to ask Barack Obama), "In what year do you foresee the government taking in more money than it spends, and how will you get us there?"

Since 2002 (or maybe even since Reagan began large-scale peacetime borrowing in the 1980's) that we have been using government borrowing to mask weaknesses in our economy. The sad truth is that doing so made those weaknesses more severe, and now our problems are worse and the tools we have previously used to juice the economy have lost their effectiveness. Which should tell us that, just maybe, we should not act as if we know how to control something as complex and unpredictable as the nation's economy in the first place.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

One Economy or Two?

Good writing can expose you to something new, or it can organize thoughts and facts you already have into a more coherent picture. That happened to me the other day when I read David Goldman (who often writes as "Spengler) explain that we have a 'winner' economy and a 'loser' economy.

The main thrust of his argument is that for a significant portion of the country, things are actually going quite well. But instead of success at the top pulling everyone along into economic revival, the successful are pulling away and leaving a significant group of Americans behind. So far this sounds like the standard liberal critique of the economy since the days of Reagan. But Goldman is no liberal, and he is making a more important and unusual point:
Perhaps we should think about America the way we think of an emerging market, except that America is submerging instead. The Chinese have warned for years that they are two countries, a First World country on the seacoast and a Fourth World country in the interior. We know that India has two economies, a small modern one and a vast backward one, and we are not particularly concerned with the GDP of impoverished rural people (if indeed we could measure it). We want to know what Tata Industries or Reliance Industries are up to.

China and India have become a dual economy because a portion of their population has clambered up into prosperity; America has become a dual economy because a portion of their population has tumbled into destitution. But the fact that larger American corporations have had a strong recovery should reassure us that America is capable of a broader recovery.
The suggestion here, I think, is that none of the typical efforts to get the economy as a whole moving again are likely to work as king as some people (and maybe some entire regions) lack the skills and resources to compete in the modern global economy.

We have enjoyed almost seven decades since the end of World War II where our country was the center of the economic universe, which allowed us to find something to do for nearly everyone who wanted to work. In the past few decades, though, as stiffer economic competition has emerged, our advantages have lessened. The acceleration of our borrowing in recent years can be seen in part as an effort to delay dealing with that fact by handing out benefits that the country hadn't earned. But now that game is up.

As a thought experiment, let's imagine 70% of people can partake of the modern 'winner' economy, while the other 30% bump along in the uncompetitive 'loser' economy. Will the 70% subsidize the others when doing so means higher taxes instead of just more borrowing? Or will the 30% be left to fend for themselves, making the divide that much more apparent?

The myth Democrats tell themselves is that they can find ways to subsidize the poor without bankrupting the country and disincentivizing work further. The myth Republicans tell themselves is that removing the support will encourage effort and individual initiative among the 'losers' and ultimately help them more than the subsidies. But the reality is that a large and growing number of Americans probably don't have the skills and talent to compete, and without some sort of assistance will live more miserable, unfulfilling and unhealthy lives. As will their children.

Our divided economy doesn't look to be going away any time soon. But what do we do about it?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Collapse of Politics

We like to imagine that we are capable of reason, of thoughtful, fact-based decision-making. I in particular flatter myself that I am a logical man. But I think the state of our politics is yet another bit of proof that we are in many ways only semi-rational beings, crippled by our own unexamined first principles and our loyalty towards our intellectual teams.

The latest bit of evidence I have collected for this theory came last Tuesday, when I was able to attend a Q&A given at Google by New York's junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. This was not exactly a hostile crowd, and I had the sense the senator was somewhat less guarded than she might have been, say, at a town hall meeting upstate. For example, at one point she said (this is not an exact quote, mind you), I think that if we had 51% women in congress, we wouldn't be in Afghanistan or Iraq, wouldn't be in the economic mess we're in. (This reminded me of an old Robin Williams joke: If there was a female president there'd never be any wars, just every 28 days some severe negotiations.") But the point she was trying to make was that women tend to be much more willing to work for agreement then the men of Congress (try not to imagine that calendar...), who are more dogmatic.

So I spent the rest of her talk trying to listen for a single thing she said that showed the least willingness to find a compromise with Republicans, and didn't come away with a single thing. Not, I don't think, because she wouldn't be willing to compromise, but because she's not even really thinking about trying to solve the same problems that Republicans are.

What are the problems Republicans are interested in solving? Right now, the debt, the encroachment of government into daily life, and the challenges facing small business. What are the problems Democrats are interested in solving? Improved social and economic equality, more investment in government services (infrastructure, education, etc), and protecting entitlement programs. Not only are these a completely different list of challenges, but the solutions each side offers will exacerbate the challenges the other side is trying to solve.

Recently, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said his goal is to make Washington as inconsequential in our lives as he can. As columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out in his recent columns, "To a Democrat steeped in the big-government tradition of the New Deal and the Great Society, there could hardly be a greater heresy." That last word is perfect, as we are not talking about political opinion but fundamental belief. Making Washington inconsequential would violate the first principles Democrats bring to politics, just as the relentless growth of government in the last few years, and the corresponding debt growth, is impossible for many Republicans to square with their beliefs about what kind of country this should be.

Even at 31, I feel to young to say definitively if this clash of first principles is that different than the political battles that came before. Certainly the Sixties must have felt equally tumultuous, although that clash seemed more generational than purely political. The only time in American history that seems comparable are the decades before the Civil War, where it became increasingly clear that our leaders had no common ground to fall back upon. The good news is that we're highly unlikely to pick up arms over current political arguments. But it is not inconceivable that at some point, the two sides of this unending debate might, like an unhappy couple, decide that their differences are irreconcilable, and find a way to end this union.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"If design govern in a thing so small"

According to my wife (later confirmed by some Internet research) what you are looking at in the picture to the left is a cicada wasp. I was attempting to repair the bare spots in my lawn yesterday when I heard a loud buzzing, and turned around to see the tiny drama of the wasp dragging its prey back to the nest, where apparently the dead cicada would serve as the first meal for a soon-to-be-hatched baby wasp.

While I'm not generally a squeamish person, something about the scene repulsed me, and I found I was deeply disturbed by the notion that such a thing was happening right in front of me. I felt like the wasp should be ashamed of what it was doing. And suddenly I had a flashback to Providence College, and Dr. Barbour's 20th Century American Poetry class. In particular, I recalled the last line of Robert Frost's great poem, Design, which the poet wrote after watching a spider consume a similarly grisly meal. It ends:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
This is, as so many of Frost's poems are, much more than a bit of acute observation. In those last two lines, he is calling into question whether someone can believe the universe is designed, if it has order or meaning, when confronted even with this small-scale carnage. To put it more bluntly, why God would allow the cicada or the moth to fall victim to such ruthless predators. Frost lays out a choice: either there is evil design in allowing it to happen, or all is randomness, because the notion of a benevolent designer seems like a sick joke when confronted with the cold reality of death in nature. I have to confess that watching that scene play out on my front lawn, it seemed impossible to reconcile the death of that cicada with a merciful God.

Upon reflection, I have tried to tell myself that the physical world requires balance, and that the predator is needed to balance the prey so that the system as a whole can continue. And a part of me can accept that. But another part of me was compelled to grab my garden hose and drown the wasp in its nest, and still feels now that the punishment was fitting.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Overthought: Who's in a Bubble?


I'd like to introduce a new recurring feature I am calling "Overthought": it is a chance to briefly present both sides of an argument and share. Some of my thinking about it, without necessarily drawing definitive conclusions.

Today, I'm thinking about the commonly heard complaint, on both sides of the political divide, that their opponents persist in pushing bad policy because they are trapped in an echo chamber where falsehoods and half truths are repeated so often that they are uncritically accepted. Classically, this argument has been made by the left, as it is in this piece by Kevin Drum. A sample:

The Fox cocoon may be good for stirring up the troops, but it's almost certainly not good for the intellectual development of new ideas. And eventually that catches up to you. If modern conservatism is simultaneously politically vigorous but intellectually enervated, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh probably deserve both the credit and the blame.

But lately, I have been hearing more often that liberals are trapped in their own distorted reality. In First Things, R. R. Reno argues that conservatives are the true cosmopolitans because they have to engage with liberal ideas, whereas liberal ideas, especially in the academic setting, are accepted uncritically. Here's the gist:

We’ve all experienced the liberal default to denunciation. Reservations about radical feminism? “Patriarchal.” Criticize multicultural lunacy? “Cultural imperialist.” Question affirmative action? “Racist.” Opposed to same-sex marriage? “Homophobic” or “heterosexist.” Worried that increased taxation will stifle economic growth? “Protecting the rich” and “indifferent to the poor.” The message is that anyone who questions liberal policies is either a bigot or out for himself, and probably both

My loyalties incline me to agree with Reno, but I think the truth is that every tribe has it's non-introspective polemicists who don't engage opposing ideas in good faith. And I also think this is largely a function of location, vocation, and inclination. If you are, say, a New York based artist, you are unlikely to have to rigorously defend liberal assumptions unless you actively seek out conservatives to argue with. Same goes in reverse is you are a pharmaceutical executive in Indiana. So, I am inclined to think that the problem is partially that we can increasingly self-select to surround ourselves with like-minded people, but mostly that our nation is split between two very different philosophies with ever-fewer common assumptions about how the world works.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Agony and Ecstacy

World, say hi to Graham. He's new. And it is entirely fair to say that he's occupied the vast majority of my thoughts for the last four days. But when I haven't been wondering what it means when he does that little shaky twitchy thing he does, or trying to figure out if he's objectively cute or whether I'm just believing everyone who tells me that because I'm over the moon for him, I have had a few moments to think about fatherhood and child rearing in this crazy world we live in.

The first thing I've noticed about having a new baby is that you are not allowed to have your own emotions about it. You are told by everyone from the doctor to your friends to the woman who cleans your hospital room that you are feeling as happy as you ever have in your life. Which is, at some level, true. But I have to admit the dominant feeling I had was one of awe. I am in awe that I could have had anything to do with making something as great as Graham. But I am even more in awe of the responsibility that has been bestowed upon me by society. How can anyone live up to the task of giving a new human being a chance to reach whatever potential he has, without smothering him in the effort?

That thought made me realize there were many times I was entirely too hard on my parents. There's no good answer to that question, so you're bound to offend your child either by not doing enough for him or by not giving him the independence he deserves. (Now, I'm still not willing to admit that I was wrong and my parents were right in any particular argument, but I can appreciate their motivations.)

I've also become profoundly aware that the world has acquired a greatly enhanced ability to cause me pain. Anything that happened to Graham would be completely devastating. In fact, I don't even want to write about this or think about it anymore: let's move on to the flip side. What's that? Simply that every achievement or triumph or happiness that Graham has going forward will provide me a deeper satisfaction than anything else I can imagine. Even the other day, when the lactation consultant noticed his fast-darting eyes and said, "Wow, he's really observant, you're going to have a smart one on your hands," I wanted to run a victory lap. I've been searching for an analogous feeling, and the only one I can think of is that sensation when you sit down to watch one of your sports teams at the start of a season, and follow them obsessively through a whole year until they win the championship. There is a feeling that you've been given happiness for free, that you've been swept up into something bigger than your own striving and seen it come to a perfect conclusion.

So that's what gets balanced in parenthood: the happiness of meeting your child with the overwhelming sense of responsibility going forward. The agony of fearing what could happen to them with the ecstacy of watching them grow and achieve. I feel pulled in both directions at each moment, and while it makes my stomach churn, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Triviality of Now

My friend Anna (who, coincidentally, you should be using for all of your communication needs) just started blogging, and her first post was a primal scream challenging our complacent acceptance of modern techno-culture. To start, she notes:
We know too much of one another’s mundane details: where someone eats, drinks, who they eat and drink with, who they like and who they don't like to eat and drink with, where they work, how they work, how much they hate their work (I have yet to see "I love my job" post that's not facetious). It is a variable "hot sheet" of the daily grind. TMI to the umpteenth power. It is The Age of Minutia.
Perhaps you've heard this gripe expressed before: social media is all surface and no depth, about the sad little performances we put on in the digital world for our friends. But it's worth thinking about exactly what we're putting on these sites, and how it appears in the aggregate: we are incapable of thinking about or discussing anything more substantial than our last meal or the funny/shocking story we just saw.

But my favorite point Anna made was this:
Idiots are allot more fascinating to watch than someone with a brain cell. It is like recess vs. school.
Watch the coverage of politics, including (and maybe especially) the coverage of the debt ceiling 'crisis'. We hear all about the dumb things people say, and the 'gotcha' moments, but no one tries to break down the options on the table and discuss what each of them will mean for the country. Our media takes the idiots in politics and makes them the most important figures, and attempts to make our wiser leaders and reduce them to idiots. And because each side knows the easiest way to score a point is to make the other side look bad, we see this sad jockeying take the place of debate, negotiation and agreement.

The technology is a reflection of the culture, and the culture is broken. And the worst part is there are no solutions on the table that would do anything to fix it. So, pray.


On a personal note, I'm expecting my son to be born any day now (so pray for me and my wife, too!) I'm sure this blog will go dark for a bit when that happens. And after, I plan to change up my approach, and include shorter, more frequent posts. So stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reflections on a Decade in Advertising: Part 2

In the first part of my rant/reflection/ramble, I laid out what I think is a big problem with the ad agency business model, and promised some potential solutions in this post. Then I spent the next week or so panicking about my complete lack of answers to a problem many smarter people than me have failed to solve. I did have a few initial, sketchy ideas that I hoped would take me somewhere:

1) Create autonomous groups of people to take on the new media world outside of the main organization (I covered off on this briefly in the last post)

2) Experiment on yourself

3) Re-imagine what market research should be

4) Think relationship before reach (unless your product stinks)

5) Sell the audience along with the creative

Let me start by saying that I've given a bit more thought to idea 1, and I think there may be something more important that just creating a skunkworks-type group at some remove from regular agency operations, and that is to create competition. If I were running an agency, I'd want 2-3 groups assigned to selling and implementing digital and social campaigns to existing accounts. I would compare performance and provide additional scale to the group that did this best. I think this would work because ad agency folks, especially on the account side, are pretty competitive by nature, and I think would both like to best their colleagues in something like this, and would be incentivized by the financial rewards for getting it right. But whatever approach agencies take to building a stable business model around digital communications, let me just repeat that expecting the whole shop to be cajoled into becoming digital experts might be like expecting to turn a freighter on a dime.

So on to my second idea, which is inspired by my brother and his penchant for tattooing. When I asked him how he decides who to trust to tattoo him, he said, "I'd never let anyone do it until I saw the ink he put on his own body." If you want a client to trust you with their brand's reputation in this hypersocial world, prove your skills are solid by applying them to yourself, and your agency's brand. I give my old shop, CDM, credit here, since they were willing to dive into the social platforms. But I'd suggest agencies should go a lot farther, and view digital and social tools as one of their top tools for lead generation and relationship building.

My third point is that market research should be fundamentally reimagined, and it is a point near and dear to my heart. Market research is often treated as some hermetically sealed clean room where every variable must be controlled. But this makes market research essentially sterile and detached, bearing little resemblance to the messy, complex, fast-changing digital world we now have to work in. So instead of doing focus-group-facility, behind the glass market research, develop pilots to test ideas in the real world, or conduct intimate tracking research with a smaller number of subjects. Do anything to get into the real world and figure out how people actually use, think about, talk about and share your brands. Remember, the program might be the idea, so you need to have a clearer picture of how people are actually going to interact with that idea.

What do I mean about 'relationships before reach'? Simply put, that the number of people who saw your ad is no longer the standard for evaluating success. A campaign should be winning over converts, true believers who will help advocate for your brand. If you have a great product, this is very doable. Just create the story of why your product can improve your customers' lives, put the product in their hands, and watch the fireworks. (Easier said than done, I know.) But if your product stinks, or is only mediocre, your efforts to build a relationship will backfire, because your customer will resent you trying to force them to have a relationship with a product they dislike. If you're selling some me-too piece of garbage, then forget what I said and go for reach.

Lastly, I have a bit of an out-there thought that I nevertheless think might help many agencies thrive in the new advertising ecosystem that is emerging. Simply put, establish independent channels to target customers that can be sold to customers. For example, my old agency was focused on marketing to health care professionals. But we had no relationship with that audience that lived outside of each client's individual campaign. What if the agency (perhaps in collaboration with others to gain a critical mass of brands) created a knowledge exchange that physicians could sign up for to get product updates, request samples, sign up to participate in upcoming trials, and simplify other interactions they want to have with pharmaceutical brands? I'd think that would be valuable for that audience and for the agency's clients, and it makes more sense for it to be done by an agency (or a group of them) than by a client, who of course has a limited roster of brands. (There are, of course, a hundred practical issues that would need to be overcome, but I don't think any are insurmountable.)

So, those are my ideas. Perhaps some or all are terrible...I have written this post in bursts over several late evenings. But my hope is that they inspire some thinking, and challenge the notion that the agency business model essentially is what it is. The new digital framework cannot be twisted and bent to fit the way agencies have grown comfortable operating. Transformation of the sort that is needed is wrenching, but crucial to the long-term survival of what is still a great industry.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reflections on a Decade in Advertising: Part 1

In 2002, in the midst of a recession caused by the implosion of the tech bubble and the September 11th attacks, I was about to graduate college. I had for some time imagined I would be seeking a job in journalism, but I had also gotten engaged while in school, and the road to success as a reporter seemed long and uncertain, to say the least. After putting off thoughts of my future for as long as possible, I went to the career services office at my alma mater and asked the counselor there what, exactly, I was qualified to do. Almost without hesitation he said, "Go work at an ad agency."

I found it was a business I loved, and only occasionally loathed. And I did well enough that I was able to move up, specialize as an account planner, and avoid the various layoffs and cutbacks that caused pain to a lot of other people in the field.

But even though advertising was very good to me, I think it is fundamentally an unhealthy industry right now. That is not to say that advertising will go away: if anything, it will continue to become more ubiquitous as time goes by, largely because people like to be given things for free. But the model that the industry has adopted is fundamentally out of whack with what clients want and need, and the result is likely to be a lingering illness that lasts for years to come.

What is this illness? In short, it is a business model that is predicated on gaining efficiencies through scale, when that scale is likely to prove inefficient for the indefinite future.

Most ad agencies go through the following life cycle: they start up with a small group of smart and talented people who have a vision for "the right way to do things". It doesn't necessarily matter what the vision is, so long as they believe in it and are passionate about it. That passion helps them to work their butts off for the few clients they have, and do great creative work. That attracts more clients, and they grow. Now, as they grow, they make the following tradeoff: the people they hire will never be as invested in what they're doing as they are, but they allow the scale to let the founders provide the high level ideas to more clients.

This eventually hits a limit, too, because the founders are spread thinner, and it is hard to bring along new people who contribute ideas. (And if you have them, they want to be treated like a partner or they don't stay.) But at this point, you have a lot of ideas, and you can sell variations on those ideas to new clients. (If you don't believe there's a lot of idea recycling in advertising, then check out this site and ask yourself why the satire works so well.)

More importantly, in the advertising world that's fading away, you could also sell them an implementation plan that more or less came off the shelf: this much TV, this much print and out of home, etc. (Or, in the healthcare world I just left, it went: do a great sales aid for the reps, place some journal ads, blow out a booth for a convention, and maybe some direct mail if you're feeling frisky.) Because the ad agencies launch campaigns all the time, and clients do it rarely, that expertise could be packaged and rolled out without much modification.

So now you have a nice, big ad agency with lots of prominent clients. What next? Well, a holding company comes along and makes a big, juicy offer to buy it up. Because an ad agency has no physical assets and could be worth nothing if it loses its clients, the founders have a hard time saying no, so they usually accept. And the holding company introduces additional efficiencies: it brings expertise and scale in finance, IT, benefits and other operational areas that every agency needs but are not core to the business.

So now you have a very large ad agency owned by a company that controls dozens of other ad agencies. And its business model gets pulled out from under it in two ways:

First, its ability to sell a 'paint by numbers' implementation plan is destroyed by the proliferation of media. Not only is there just a lot more media out there to think about, but now clients are confused and asking a lot more questions, which means each plan needs to be thought through and given a lot of senior-level scrutiny. So that mid-level account person can no longer be trusted to bang out a PowerPoint deck featuring the same basic plan in new wrapping paper. That's a major efficiency hit.

Second, a lot of these new media options call for fundamentally different ideas than what you see on TV or in print. However, as I learned watching "Everything's a Remix", we need to imitate and combine to generate new creative ideas. Since we don't have a large store of successful social media or mobile campaigns to draw from (yet), sometimes the new ideas are hard to come by. And many people who have made good careers off of the old way are still trying to find ways to squeeze their ideas into the new media world rather than accepting they need to start fresh. At any rate, the efficiencies that come from being able to remix, recycle and reformulate existing ideas evaporates when those ideas don't work in the new media.

This post has gotten damned long, and I'm going to write a second part with some ideas on how to solve this business problem. But I think the core of the answer come's from Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma: big companies need to create small, autonomous units that can take these problems head on, even if they disrupt the existing business model. Commanding hundreds of people to 'think digital' or to 'sell a Facebook campaign' isn't going to change anything. People need to have the chance to do it in an environment removed from the normal pressures of the agency's day-to-day business. Because that business isn't sustainable in the medium term, anyway.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How We Piss Each Other Off

I don't think I've ever read anything by Robert Morrison before. But today my favorite sites were full of links to heartwarming remembrances of fathers, and one of them led me to this article of Mr. Morrison's. Much of it shares the way that his father managed to embody some of the best attributes of a father, managing to be both a role model and a friend. Here's a good sample:
My dad was a carpenter and he left the house every morning before dawn. The good part of that is that he would often return in the late afternoon. I can remember as a little boy of nine or ten wrestling with “Pop” on the TV room floor when he came home. He was still sweaty and often had sawdust in his hair and on his clothes.
Nice, comforting stuff on a day that we're meant to think of our dads, to honor their virtues, to do something for them. But then, after recalling a moment when his father stood up for him, Morrison concludes:
We kids grew up feeling safe, protected in our tender years. One of George Washington’s great contemporaries, Edmund Burke, wrote of something called “the cheap defense of nations.” Fathers in the home were surely a part of that cheap defense. Without fathers in the home, there won’t be enough money in the U.S. treasury or all the treasuries in the world to guard the young against bullying.

New York State, my home state, is on the verge of abolishing fathers in the home. They say they are only “re-defining” marriage. They’re not. They are ending it. And with the end of marriage, will come the dissolution of the state. Gone will be the cheap defense of nations. And no one will know what it means “to sleep with my fathers.”
Is there any logical connection between the sentiment at the beginning of the first paragraph and where Morrison ends up? (Go read the article if you think I'm leaving something out. I'm not.) Now, I know what he's getting at: New York is trying to pass a law recognizing same-sex marriage--a fact which is never actually mentioned in the article--and many conservatives feel this will lead to a sustained assault on traditional marriage and the values that underpin it. But how in the heck does this article effectively make the case that this is so?

Morrison paints a moving, emotional portrait of his strong, reliable father, and then asserts out of nowhere that such men will be driven out of existence if gay marriage becomes a legal reality. Really? So Morrison's carpenter father, in a world where people of the same sex can legally wed, would have become and effeminate, uncaring, unreliable disgrace to fatherhood?

I've written previously that I think the state has no business licensing romantic relationships between individuals. If marriage isn't in some fundamental way about procreation, and thus bringing up the next generation of citizens, then marriage should be removed from the legal system and defined by the religious institutions that marry people. But I get the counter-argument of Morrison and those who think like him: traditional, procreative marriage is a cornerstone of civilization, and pulling it out could cause profound social disruption and decay. But even in that grim scenario, men like Morrison's father should still be able to act out the role God and nature have defined for them.

But aside from disagreeing with Morrison's point, I believe writing of the type I linked to causes a further breakdown of the already disastrous debate between left and right in this country. If a gay-marriage advocate reads that article, there is no chance they'll find it thought provoking or convincing. Instead, it will piss them off every which way, and some of them will probably write pieces stating that everyone against gay marriage is a secret theocrat who wants to force Christian beliefs on everyone. And that, in turn, will lead to more angry arguments from the other side.

The gay marriage debate is not one where people seem inclined to compromise. But a little temperance when speaking and writing, especially from traditional-marriage supporters who are supposed to be the defenders of a more refined, civilized point of view, would be a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stay Tuned!

I know my posting has been a little light lately, and I apologize (I have a lengthy number on David Brooks just below to make up for it.) Things are happening, people! First, my wife and I just moved into our new home this weekend, and are still digging out from a small landslide's worth of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap. We're also waiting for our Internet hookup.

Second, I will be starting a new job in a few weeks, at Google. I'll provide more details after it starts, but it should be pretty exciting.

And finally, and most thrilling, we're now only weeks away from the anticipated arrival of our son.

So I can't promise a lot of posting in the next few months, and what does go up could be more incoherent than usual, but I promise that Sketches of Tomorrow will keep chugging on. In fact, I'll make a vow: if I go more than 15 days without posting in the next six months, anyone who comments on this post can slap me in the face with a trout. I'll even provide the trout. (Is this a brazen attempt to elicit a comment? Of course!)

At any rate, please keep checking back.

David Brooks, the Tea Party, and Our Political Future

I am a David Brooks fan. I have pimped his new book, The Social Animal, like it was a 19 year-old crack addict from a broken home. At one point, I owned work and home copies of Bobos in Paradise. And I completely agree with his latest column on the sad state of our political parties and leadership heading into the next election:
Voters are certainly aware of the scope of the challenges before them. Their pessimism and anxiety does not just reflect the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but is deeper and more pervasive. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Large majorities think the country is on the wrong track, and have for years. Large pluralities believe their children will have fewer opportunities than they do.

Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid.
As a diagnosis of our current predicament, this is about as good as it gets. And I would endorse most of his proposed solutions, too:
This reinvigoration package would have four baskets. There would be an entitlement reform package designed to redistribute money from health care and the elderly toward innovation and the young. Unless we get health care inflation under control by replacing the perverse fee-for-service incentive structure, there will be no money for anything else.

There would be a targeted working-class basket: early childhood education, technical education, community colleges, an infrastructure bank, asset distribution to help people start businesses, a new wave industrial policy if need be — anything that might give the working class a leg up.

There would be a political corruption basket. The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

There would also be a pro-business basket: lower corporate rates, a sane visa policy for skilled immigrants, a sane patent and permitting system, more money for research.
But this post isn't meant to be a standing ovation for Brooks. In fact, I have a large criticism: he indicts the two parties for not doing anything that will get America out of its mess. He seems ready to acknowledge (if only indirectly) that his past support of Obama has not panned out, and the Democrats don't have a plan to get us out of this mess. And yet, when a grass-roots movement arose that wanted to push to make big changes (many of which are compatible with Brooks' wish list, he thumbed his nose at it. Here's his reaction to the Tea Party in an older column:
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.
You can get more details here, and it is pretty obvious that Brooks found something distasteful and lowbrow when he looked at the Tea Party.

And there have certainly been times when the Tea Party has lived up to the caricature painted of it in much of the media: the Truther movement, which is well-represented within the Tea Party, is just a silly waste of time, and men carrying visible firearms at political rallies sends a horrible message no matter what the law says, or their intent was.

But all political movements, especially those that bubble up from the bottom, are going to have loons. They will all be excessive in their thinking or their rhetoric from time to time. But you know what would help? If thinkers like David Brooks engaged with these movements to give them focused, more powerful thinking, instead of trying to strangle them while they're still in the cradle.

The Tea Party emerged out of a concern that government spending and the intrusions of the nanny state would sap the nation's vitality and destroy the American Dream. That doesn't sound all that different from the concerns Brooks outlines. Maybe if he can look past the rough edges, and get over his distaste at their lack of intellectualism, he'll find they have a lot in common.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slow-Moving Disasters

I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode from Hawaii last night, and he visits the house of a man living in the path of a lava flow. The fellow had been there over two decades after most of his neighbors had left. Eventually, he knew, the lava would arrive, but instead of using the time to move and start a new life, he just sat and waited. (A voiceover from Bourdain noted that he was forcibly evacuated a few weeks later as the lava crept in.)

Most people would dismiss this man as a nut, and yet at the communal level we are doing exactly the same thing. I was struck by this "I told you so" article from Edward Achorn in the Providence Journal: he is able to document time after time that debt and pension problems were called out and dismissed by Rhode Island's governing class. Here is one example from eight years ago:
From “The faces ignored on Smith Hill,” Aug. 12, 2003:

Many legislators dismissed growing annual pension costs as small potatoes. I wrote: “$20 million-plus is still worth debate in most people’s books. And the costs are exploding: Pension contributions for state workers and teachers are slated to go up $60 million in the next year, says Mr. Carcieri. This would seem to present a crisis that cannot be ignored.”

(Now, in 2011, of course, the state confronts pension costs growing by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.)

Steven Costantino, then vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, accused the pension reformers of trying to stir up emotions. “You simply can’t cherry-pick an issue which is a hot button or a good sound bite,” he said.
Now, no one wants budget cutbacks or austerity or people to go without benefits they were expecting to get. Despite what Constantino is quoted as saying above, all the emotions are on the side of the people who say that we should keep things as they are. The man who stays in a house surrounded by lava points to his view and says, "I can't give this up." He looks around his house and says, "I've built a life here and I don't want to change." It's hard to say, "If I make this difficult decision now, I can start to build a new life and eventually will be better off." But that's the adult decision to make.

Our debt burden is like a lava flow: it moves slow but will overwhelm us eventually. Anyone who looks at the books and projects out can see the disaster coming. As Walter Russell Mead said in a recent piece, "We can no longer stimulate the economy successfully by encouraging more and more people to assume higher levels of debt." That goes for government debt as well as individual debt. But we've grown addicted to the things that the debt buys, and we know change is going to be hard, maybe even tragic for some people who fall through a crack as the system changes.

I'm becoming increasingly pessimistic about our chances of solving this problem before an actual crisis hits: as Americans, we're good at reacting when our backs our against the wall, but we stink about staying away from the wall in the first place. So perhaps the best policy for those of us concerned about the debt is to have a plan in place for the day that the impending crisis becomes an active catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Harry Potter Is Not Escapism

Ha, you like that? I just wrote a flagrantly untrue title. Of COURSE you escape into books like the Harry Potter series. If you didn't, it would be darned hard to read through 4,000 plus pages in seven books. (And, if you've reached my level of geekdom, to do it more than once.) But I just read an article that seemed to imply that escapism was, especially for adult readers, the primary purpose of reading young adult fantasy novels. Here's the offending passage:
Young adult fiction offers a promise to all of us that there is no suffering that's not worth it, no agony that goes unrewarded down the line. If you're a teenager, those promises might be false, but they're a temporary balm. And if you're an adult, too old to believe that the balance of life comes out even, you can suspend your disappointments as long as you're immersed in a story that promises something different.
There is so much disdain hidden within that third sentence. Adult readers of fantasy novels have been beaten down by life, and so need some escape to a world where life is fair, where things "come out even". ARE YOU BLEEPING KIDDING ME? What remotely astute reader could think that Harry Potter's fictional life comes out even? Yes, he wins the battle and goes on to have a family, but he never gets to know his parents, his friends and surrogate family members are picked off one by one, and he has to willingly march to his own death before he can be victorious. His life is profoundly unfair, in a way that would make a mockery of any other person's suffering if he were, you know, real.

We are drawn to Harry Potter's story (and Ender Wiggin's story, and Frodo Baggin's story) not because we're happy to see everything turn out fairly for them, but because we see that the characters choose a path that leads to suffering because they believe following that path is the right thing to do, and then they carry on despite complications, losses, and many moments where they could give up with little shame. Our escape is to believe that, were we presented with a similar choice, we too would take the moral path. But it is not merely escape, it is also instruction, because as we encourage a (probably over-optimistic) belief that we have the will to be righteous, we perhaps give ourselves a slightly better chance to behave with honor when we are presented with our moment.

The best writers of fantasy, then, are both entertainers and moral educators. If we are too quick to dismiss adult readers of young adult fantasy as beaten down drones looking to retreat to a more appealing universe, we ignore the reality that readers are living vicariously through the characters' trials, and promising themselves to imitate the fortitude their literary heroes demonstrate.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Danger of Platform Dependency

We are all becoming increasingly comfortable sharing our lives and our information on different technology platforms, specifically social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and their more targeted imitators. But what happens if those platforms turn on you?

This article suggests that Facebook might be disadvantaging conservative and libertarian organizations as it provides upgrades to its "Groups" pages. Reading the story, it seems more likely that the upgrading process is just taking a while, and they'll probably get around to most everyone eventually. But imagine for a second that there's something to it: Groups that were organized through Facebook, the product of months and years of effort to win a following, could just be wiped out.

It is in the best interests of these 'universal' sites to be scrupulously neutral when it comes to politics and other areas of our social lives that tend to be controversial or inspire deep passions. (Imagine, to look at it a different way, that some diehard Red Sox fan at Facebook didn't let Yankees fans upgrade their groups.) A Facebook that drove away conservatives (or Yankees fans) might seem appealing to liberals (or Red Sox fans) in the abstract, but the network would lose countless valuable connections, and be weaker for everyone. And while you might not mind losing that one obnoxious guy you friended who posts about Obama's fake birth certificate 10 times a day, you'll probably miss those friends who happen to be conservative, but are also about a lot of other things.

So, as I said, I doubt Facebook is actually discriminating against conservative groups. But they could, and that brings up an important point. Facebook is not a utility, and it isn't part of the government. There are no laws that force it to accept everyone, or to be welcoming of all opinions and commentary. It does this because it is good for business, and if it decided it wanted to boot anyone who posts a conservative thought, it could. And so could LinkedIn, or any other network.

So if you're organizing through the Internet, it's probably a good idea to collect email addresses of your members. It isn't good to be too reliant on any one channel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Overly Intuitive?

Here's a random thought...what if we are making technology too easy to use? I hear in my line of work that if some tool we design isn't intuitive, it won't get used. I just wonder if perhaps this leads us to follow well trodden paths that don't help us make anything truly great.

In other words, when some tool is complicated and takes effort to master, we might learn more about it and thus figure out new, unexpected ways to use it. But if it is simple and easy to understand, we may never appreciate the possibilities because our use of the tool is purely transactional.

Old computer programs were like pianos...you may not use all the keys for all songs, but you need to know them all to play whatever song you want. Modern 'apps' are more like player pianos, doing the hard work for you. So, are the benefits of convenience worth the loss of discipline and mastery?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Death of Stupid?

Are you in favor of eugenics? Of course not, right? The idea that the human population should be cultivated to encourage certain traits and skills to flourish, by weeding out the undesirable strains of mankind, has been thoroughly discredited by its past history of association with forced sterilizations and Nazi horrors. But there is something about the notion that we'd all be better off if we could just get rid of the 'wrong sort' that the idea keeps popping up in different guises.

So I suppose I should give Julien Savulescu credit for honesty, then: he doesn't deny that what he's talking about is eugenics. Instead, he tries to rip the term away from its evil, 20th century practitioners. See, for example, this quote from an interview he did recently with the Guardian:
"It depends what you mean by eugenics," he says. "In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down's syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities. The reason we don't define that sort of thing as 'eugenics', as the Nazis did, is because it's based on choice. It's about enhancing people's freedom rather than reducing it."
Let me back up. Julien Savulescu is a prominent bioethicist at Oxford, and he is arguing that eugenics is alright as long as it is a personal choice (of the parents, of course, not of the fetus) and not forced by the state. He is pro-cloning, pro-gene enhancement, and definitely in favor of selecting embryos to be implanted for intelligence. He's been quoted as saying that embryos that do not have the right genes for high intelligence should be destroyed to ensure, "the economic and social benefits of higher cognition."

Despite my disgust at the notion of throwing away human life--even embryonic life--as if it was an insignificant bit of garbage, I'd like to focus more on the end result of Savulescu's proposal: should we be in favor of a world where people are designed to be smarter?

In an earlier post, I wrote that our society might be evolving into one where a few people have exceptionally meaningful, creative work, but the majority have little to do at all. But perhaps that problem would be solved if everyone was what we would today call a genius, if they had the mental gifts to do meaningful work in the increasingly complex scientific and intellectual areas that define modern life.

So lets say we could eliminate unintelligent people not by killing them before they're born, but by altering their genes to increase their intellectual capacity. Should we have any objection to this? I can see several: that we're messing with the essence of who we are as people, that it will favor those who can afford it over those who can't, that we will make one generation "obsolete" with the enhancements given to the next. But I can't say I find any of those arguments convincing: humanity is either endowed by God with intelligence (as I believe) and therefore we should use that intelligence to improve our lot in life, or else we are here as a product of blind evolution, in which case we should do all we can to advance the species and our own quality of life. Either way, the issue is not whether we should enhance our intelligence or not, but whether we take unethical shortcuts in our effort to do so.

There is, I have to admit, a nagging voice in the back of my head that says this is the path to creating a class of amoral Ubermenschen. And when I first conceived of this post, my intention was to bash the idea of artificially enhancing intelligence. But isn't this hypothetical concern about the perils of evil, rogue geniuses a bit of a red herring? It seems a much more practical worry that we are going to leave behind millions of good, hardworking people who simply don't have the gifts to contribute all they would want to an ever-more knowledge-based society. The person with a below-average IQ doing manual labor is not less valuable than a smarter person, and it is dangerous that we might see them as such if most people had enhanced intelligence. But wouldn't most, if not all, of those people appreciate the chance to add to their intellectual capacity?

Clearly, I'm still struggling with this issue. (Thus all the question marks.) So I'll leave it here: Julien Savulescu's casual disregard of human life is appalling, but high intelligence is a great gift that would be worth spreading more widely through the human family if we could do so safely and ethically. Someday, we'll be able to do so, and the burden of proof will be on the naysayers to argue why we shouldn't.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Candy Versus Vegetables

People like to believe that society can be made perfect. Sure, they probably wouldn't admit that they think this way. Most people think they are realistic types, who can make tradeoffs and rationally evaluate a wise path forward. But then those people vote.

I'm coming to believe that, rather than being to uninformed to make smart political choices, most Americans believe in their hearts that their 'team' (as I described it in my last post) has the key to fixing the ills of society, and if it could just be swept into power, all would be well. Most people I know have a hard time even acknowledging that their political opponents are intellectually honest and might be trying to act in what they think is the common good.

Which, finally, brings me to my point: both Democrats and Republicans engage in magical thinking that lets them offer goodies to voters without dealing with our big problems. And no one has figured out a way to fight against this without losing elections. The Democrats want people to believe lavish social services are possible if we just 'tax the rich'. Republicans argue that tax cuts will generate enough growth to pay for themselves. And when members of either party challenge these lies, they are denounced as traitors.

An example: recently, Tom Coburn, no one's idea of a squishy moderate, has been negotiating with Democrats to try to find common cause and attack our deficit problem in a meaningful way. He has expressed willingness to consider some tax increases as part of a compromise deal, though he obviously would prefer not to have them. This has been enough to cause Grover Norquist, a man who has made a nice living for himself by simplifying our fiscal debates to "no new taxes, ever", has said, "[Democrats] are playing Coburn like a Stradivarius." Now, no deal even exists yet. But Norquist wants to hold Coburn to a pledge he (like almost every other Republican politician) has signed at some point: a pledge to never raise taxes. And so political action is made almost impossible.

People also talk about politicians offering 'candy' to constituents, because you can't get elected by telling the electorate to eat its vegetables. But the analogy goes deeper than just contrasting something tasty but ultimately bad for you with something unpleasant but healthful. Candy, unlike vegetables, comes packaged and branded. It's ready to consume. The simple slogans of political absolutism, like "no new taxes", are equally easy. But we've been sucking them down for so long we're going to get sick.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, Branding and Our Desire to Believe

Why are we so quick to believe liars and fabricators? We are plagued by journalists who invent facts and sources, by politicians scurrying to bury scandal, and by memoirists who find their lives are best seasoned by liberal doses of fiction. Into this last bucket place Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, founder of a charity intended to build schools in central Asia, and--as 60 Minutes revealed in a recent expose--a fabulist and a crook.

What is amazing, as this post by Bruce Bawer makes clear, is that the improbability of his story should have been apparent to even a casual observer:
[Mortenson] was the star of his own story. The whole point of his talk was how much one brave, selfless individual can accomplish in this world even against the most formidable of odds. And that individual was him. The premise of his spiel was that he’s a miracle worker, pacifying belligerent jihadist types by sitting down with them over three cups of tea and listening to their concerns. Yet the egomaniac I saw that day was somebody you couldn’t picture listening to anybody else for more than thirty seconds. Mortenson’s shameless self-celebration in Three Cups of Tea left me speechless. As Oscar Wilde observed of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, how could any sensitive reader react to such nonsense with anything but derisive laughter?
Bawer continues by showing how callously Mortenson turned on those who had been kind to him to bolster his own reputation:
Then there’s Mortenson’s lie about having been kidnapped by the Taliban. He stuck a picture in his book of him and some Afghani acquaintances — who had treated him kindly — and identified them in the caption as his kidnappers
When we hear stories of people using others this way to bolster their own stories, we are rightfully disgusted. When we hear, as in Mortenson's case, that he was doing it in large part to enrich himself, and use his charity to support a lavish lifestyle, we howl for blood. But why do we buy in to begin with? It is easy to say, "We want to believe," but why? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to be exceptionally skeptical, and to disbelieve even true stories to protect ourselves from fraud and disappointment? Why, in other words, are humans so quick to trust?

Part of the answer, as David Brooks and Mark Earls and many others have pointed out, is that we are social creatures. We essentially outsource some of our decision-making to others. So if enough people tell you Greg Mortenson is a hero, you may not evaluate that claim very critically yourself before you, too, are singing his praises.

But I think it goes beyond that. People don't just have their small social groups, they love to organize themselves into big, abstract teams, teams that are defined by a series of positions its members are either for or against. Successfully aligning with these positions is the key to popularity for both brands and people.

Look, for example, at how Microsoft and Apple fostered opposing tribes of believers on the basis of different operating systems and technical specs. Mortenson did the same thing by aligning with deep-held beliefs in non-violence, in the power of the individual to make a difference, in multiculturalism. He pushes against the idea of cynicism (or what some would call realism or humility) and an us-versus-them mentality.

This places him squarely on the liberal-idealist team, which has many players in academia, in government, and in Western urban culture more generally. Many of these people struggle to solve the seemingly intractable problems in society, and are understandably inspired by someone who seems to be taking on big challenges with verve and success. Mortenson's story reflects their beliefs and aspirations so perfectly, they were desperate for it to be true. (Similarly, eight years ago who took what was commonly called the 'neocon' worldview really wanted to believe the Iraqi people were going to "greet us as liberators.")

We should remember that people (and brands) are not perfect. So if their stories are perfect, it should set off our BS warning sirens. The lesson is that we can't just investigate our enemies and be skeptical about those we don't agree with. To avoid our natural tendency to believe, to accept social decisions, and to take sides, we need to bring a critical eye even to those we want to love.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Patients ARE Consumers...Except When They Aren't

Do you shop the health care the way you shop for, say, a new mattress? Well, in the case of the unfortunate patient to the left, probably not. There are plenty of situations where medical care is an urgent case of life-and-death, not a consumer choice. But there are also many situations where our purchasing decisions are made with the same cognitive tools that we use to choose any other service or object.

Paul Krugman disagrees. In a column last week, Krugman resoundingly declared that patients are not consumers...that was even the headline if his point was in doubt. Let's look at his argument in a bit more detail:
Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.
Certainly that vision of the medical experience as somehow removed from the normal way we buy is appealing: it's nice to think we will be taken care of without any consideration of our wealth or even our personal decision-making: just put yourself in the hands of your physician and all will be well.

But Krugman acknowledges, a few paragraphs later, that we're only having this conversation because of the current political moment, where people on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure out how we can afford our entitlement programs without bankrupting the country. So, at some point, money is going to come into the picture as a factor. And that's where the idea of talking about patients as consumers comes into play. The conservative theory is that bringing consumer-like behavior to health care (in other words, letting individuals try to go out and get the best value for their dollar) will slow the exploding health care costs that are hamstringing our economy. Referring to patients as consumers is not to minimize the emotional, human aspects of medical care, but to describe a certain rational, value-seeking behavior that conservatives hope to bring to the industry.

Krugman doesn't think patients can be wise consumers of health care. But he is dramatically oversimplifying. The trauma patient in the picture up top is not a consumer: he's not going to come back to consciousness to demand the ambulance drive him over to Memorial Hospital, where they charge 10% less for blood transfusions. But a patient with diabetes, dealing with a chronic condition, is going to make dozens, if not hundreds, of consumer-ish decisions about what drugs to take, what physicians to see, and which diet plans to attempt. If they were more personally responsible for those economic decisions, they would (in the aggregate) make better decisions about how to balance cost and care quality.

That's why it makes sense to move towards a system where the costs of catastrophic care (like traumatic injuries or heart attacks) are socialized to some degree, but to expect individuals (either on their own or through private insurance) to cover the costs of chronic care, physicals, and the like.

We want to believe there's a way to treat everyone "fairly", but what we really mean is that we don't want to hear tragic tales of system failure that make us sad for the victim and nervous for ourselves. We want to believe we and our loved ones and, perhaps, "the deserving" will always be cared for. And that we don't have to make tradeoffs between how good our care is and how much it costs. But we do. We can either wash our hands of the decision and ask the government to decide, for all except for the most wealthy, who gets what care, or we can embrace our role as consumers and make the best decisions we can for ourselves and our families.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Greed, Sex and Public Morality

Republicans, according to stereotype, are overly concerned with what other people do with their bodies, while Democrats are overly concerned with what other people do with their money. So it was interesting, and unexpected, to read an article encouraging a renewed aversion to greed in the latest issue of First Things magazine, which decidedly falls on the conservative side of the spectrum. It forced me to reconsider some basic assumptions I have made about wealth, capitalism, and morality.

The author of the piece, Edward Skidelsky, argues that our elites have lost the traditional, still-popular view that there is something wrong with being greedy, that it is an essentially disordered, wicked activity. This notion, which your average modern economist might dismiss as juvenile, has a rich heritage. As Skidelsky puts it:
Explanation of this point requires a brief excursus into Aquinas’ theory of acts and ends. An act, for Aquinas, has two ends: one “proximate,” which is what makes it the kind of act it is, the other “ultimate,” which is what the agent aims at in acting. If either end is bad, the act as a whole is bad. A good ultimate end cannot redeem a bad proximate end; thieving to help the poor is still thieving.
He goes on to say that most thinkers in western history, up until the Enlightenment, took it as a given that trying to accumulate more money or things than you needed is wrong, no matter if it leads to good things happening. But one of the views of the Enlightenment was the economic view of man, the belief that our wealth-building activities enhance human progress as a whole. Skidelsky notes:
This transformation of attitudes to wealth creation cleared the ground for the new science of political economy. Having been demoralized, so to speak, economic acts became open to analysis and assessment in terms of their effects, intended or otherwise. They could enter into a calculus. It now made sense to ask, for instance, whether it might not be more beneficial in the long run to let corn prices fluctuate freely, even in a famine, than to regulate them—a question that could not have been decently posed when the duty to feed the poor was regarded as absolute. Without this prior demoralization of economic activity, [Adam] Smith’s enterprise would have been unthinkable. Aquinas, for instance, would have regarded it as akin to an earnest discussion of the benefits of cutting up a hospital patient and distributing his organs among others.
Now, I have accepted uncritically that the best way to improve the well-being of all is to allow individuals to pursue their own self-interest. And I don't see how you can renounce that principle without setting some group (whether the command-and-control planners of the Soviet Union or the divine-rights kings of old Europe or some body of clerics) as the arbiters of what is allowed and what is forbidden. But do we need to promote the idea of material success as a complete good? is there room for guilt about greed in a capitalistic society?

I struggled with these thoughts for a little while, but then was absorbed in another First Things article, I began another, this time "Religion, Reason and Same-Sex Marriage" by Matthew J Franck. In this piece, Franck expands on an earlier article where he argued that anti-gay marriage arguments are not based solely on irrational bias and have a place in the public debate. I have outlined my position on gay marriage on the blog in the past: namely, that we have gone so far away from the traditional sense of marriage already, and it makes so little sense for the state to license romantic companionship, that we ought to eliminate civil marriage entirely. Franck, as you might imagine, takes a different view:
Yet another danger may await us in the event that traditional views of sexual morality are overthrown and same-sex marriage is established. We see a sign of it in the driving of Catholic Charities out of adoption services in Massachusetts. The freedom to participate fully in civic life, to offer oneself to others in civil society, conscientiously on one’s own terms as a religious person professing one’s beliefs, may be jeopardized by this new dispensation.
Franck, along with many other observers, thinks the adoption of gay marriage and the host of cultural assumptions that go along with it will push Christians out of public life. This may be possible in the long term, though it is unlikely to happen any time soon in a majority-Christian nation.

So, to recap: we have two articles. One is about the ubiquity of greed in our society and of the need to curtail it, and one is a reaction to the legal advance of gay marriage. What do they have in common? In my view, both authors commit the fallacy of equating laws and government action with public morality as a whole. Look at this quote from Skidelsky:
Democratic states use economic incentives all the time to encourage motives and ways of life considered to be civilized. They limit hours of work, restrict or forbid Sunday trading, regulate where and how advertisers may operate. In a utilitarian political culture, such legislation is usually justified on grounds of economic efficiency or “health and safety,” but its unacknowledged motive is ethical. These states wish to erect safeguards against the powerful human tendency to rapacity.

If we acknowledged the legitimacy of such motives, we might think of many further ways in which the power of the state could be harnessed to discourage avarice. Of course, such proposals will encounter the objection of “paternalism,” but there is nothing inherently paternalistic about a citizen body collectively deciding to encourage certain forms of life and discourage others.
It's true that society's laws are an important benchmark of what is acceptable and what isn't, but they are far from the only ones. The culture of a society can be an equally powerful force in shaping behavior, and yet both Skidelsky and Franck are primarily concerned with whether the law advances or challenges their beliefs about the well-ordered life.

It is probably easier to change the laws to reflect the kind of society you want than to change the culture, but I would argue that a truly Christian response to the problems of materialistic greed and sexual amorality are to build up a virtuous alternative in Christian communities, prove the superiority of that way of life and then share it with others. This may be a libertarian point of view that borders on the naive, but the law that supports our beliefs on Monday may change to oppose them by Friday. (This is, in fact, what is happening with marriage laws.) If we can encourage a truly neutral state in matters of morality and culture (which I admit is a high challenge itself) than Christians should be confident that living out their beliefs will show others a better way. Public morality should be built (and renewed) from the ground up by moral individuals, not imposed from the top down by the state.