Saturday, November 14, 2015

First Annual "Sexting Denial-Of-Excitement Day": December 31, 2015

The last time I risked watching the local news, I couldn't watch long enough to get past an endless stream of stories of sexting scandals, first from local high-school cyberbullies, and then, if I got it right, from a Secret Service agent who moonlights as an online pornographer.  The adult activities, while offensive, have always occurred, but now have the added phenomenon of the Internet's elephantine memory.  The kids' activities though, are a whole new world and have wreaked havoc among many young lives as our kids learn the perils and pitfalls of a world where cameras are omnipresent and concealable. Previous generations never had this challenge as kids. And the results are much more damaging than in our times.

There's no turning back; there's no making it go away. Is there a pinky-ring camera yet on Indiegogo? Well there should be. How can you get through the day without photographing your knuckles and, lest you leave it on at an inopportune time, the inside of you nose. And it should have voice-stress analysis for instant lie detection when your boss does your next face-to-face review. And live streaming to your personal Youtube channel. But I digress.

So I'm suggesting a radical remedy to save our kids from just one small injustice of the wonderful technology we've assaulted them with: the first Annual "Sexting Denial-Of-Excitement Day," December 31, 2015. Everyone get out those cameras and take a picture of some genitalia and post it everywhere. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it.  Get professional on LinkedIn. Who doesn't think about sex at work? And no Amazon book review is complete without illustration.

You don't have to photograph a real person, let alone yourself... unless you're into advertising and marketing.  There's some great sculpture out there to photograph. Consider David in Florence. Or find some books or magazines; use your imagination people. Or get some stills from your favorite celebrity sex tape.  (I still don't know what that is, a 'tape': I know what a celebrity is and I know what sex is.) And let's not leave any stones unturned, where room for new titillation is left with unexposed parts. Include some assholes. No, not Donald Trump. I'm outrageous and inventive but not cruel. I mean real sphincters, but let's be clean, people. Get them from medical tomes where the work is professional and properly lit.

And let's do some serious Photoshopping, too and get the whole mess over with on Version 1. Let's not make a beta testicle of this. Picture those three-slice pictures with one person's face, another's torso, and well... you're with me, right? We live in a world where no vulgarity is too profane for the seat beside you on the train... no obscenity too extreme even for a sports broadcast... no offense too cruel even for a national election race. So let's get the last true morsel of all the privacy we once thought inalienable, and put it on display. Maybe some nice advertiser could devote some of their electronic billboards to stream the best-of-the-worst. Gosh, how we all love a new paradigm!

And why, you might ask, December 31st? Well, has any useful work ever occurred on this day? And on New Year's Day, we'll all have as much excitement as toddlers under the Christmas tree... for one and only one year. Hopefully next year, the excitement will be gone. And so will the value to the school bully of posting embarrassing pictures of their classmates.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Newletter #1 Technology


Every day it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods and services.
This one inescapable and incontestable fact is dominating our era and is at the root of all our other problems. All other factors, however contributory, are merely that—contributors, not sources.


In their quest to solve science's biggest mystery, namely the various forces that explain the interactions between matter, scientists seek a single explanation... a so-called 'unified force.' That's because it is illogical that multiple explanations exist for what seems so obvious—to some at least—to be a single problem. And so it is with the great socio-economic problems of our time: increasing income disparity, unabated poverty, under-employment of the middle class, whole countries on the brink of financial collapse, and troubling if not outrightly untenable costs for healthcare and college, not to mention a US national debt figure that stretches credulity.

If you're wondering why we are stuck in this endless cycle of bad financial news, the answer has been in front of us for about 40 years: the increasing pace of technology. Study any problem, not just financial ones, but the gamut of modern ills from gun violence to overpopulation, and while many factors may come into play, at the root you will always find technology as the enabling source.

Back in the '70's the news focused on automation taking jobs, but for some reason it's as if we're now surprised at the way it's played out. Yet it's clear that human labor will be replaced by new efficiencies until all remnants of the last 100 years' work world are gone. And this is likely to occur in increasingly larger waves, despite the comforting allure of the intervening troughs. Consider, for instance one of the most likely upcoming waves of disruption, as the dot-com folks like to euphomize it: when email reaches its full potential, about 300,000 letter carriers in the US Postal Service alone will no longer having jobs. After that telecomm will lose another tier of labor as Wi-Fi becomes ubiquitous. And when younger technologists finally become tomorrow's politicians, perhaps tax simplification (irrespective of being flat or progressive) will translate into tens of thousands of fewer IRS and street-corner accounting jobs. Against this backdrop many are convinced that this is merely tiresome, misguided hysteria that "the sky is falling," and that technology gives as much as it takes. Those are the people who have well-paying jobs, and generally in the professions well treated by technology, media pundits first-and-foremost. A more likely appraisal is that technology gives back one new job for every ten it takes.

To solve any problem you need an explanation—a mental model—that correctly assesses the circumstances. To figure out where the jobs will be you need to figure out wealth and its distribution. Wealth is the sum of the necessities, niceties, and healthiness that a society enjoys. Trust me, it's not as complicated as some might suggest. It's a certainty that we are producing wealth faster and in greater volume than it's ever been produced.

Distribution is more subtle, and of course, contentious. Ever since the hunter-gather days,when wealth was distributed evenly—if sparsely—among everyone, society has been on a relentless progression, through the agrarian culture, to the industrial age... in which successful individuals have ever-increasing ability to accumulate—concentrate—wealth. And, despite the recent arguing about "you didn't make that" (in reference to the business owner not creating the publicly funded infrastructure that enables their wealth accumulation), even the hardest working individuals don't have the work capacity to create the wealth of 100,000 people.

Technology has always been the lever in this equation. It estimated that in 1900 an American farmer could feed 25 people; today that number is around 1,000. But that figure might be from before tractors were guided by GPS and could plow a field without a driver.... at night... with optimal fuel consumption... at exactly the right time that the weather calls for... without overlapping its path at all...

Until recently, it's true that the jobs that were displaced were replaced in time. But that process is no longer able to take up the slack. A recent story in the New York Times magazine epitomized the relationship between wealth concentration and technology. The story told of devious stock trading companies surreptitiously undercut the rest of the investors—pension funds and day traders alike—by detecting trades before they are executed on a slower exchange and buying or selling a millisecond beforehand on their own exchange, a so-called 'dark pool' trade. (Never mind that this shouldn't even be possible, that's another story.) Despite the duplicity of it, that is the state in which we now exist: genuine work might not be completely detached from the genuine creation of wealth, but it is absolutely unnecessary for its accumulation and  concentration. By a recent account, half of the world's wealth is now owned by 85 people. We've all heard the statistics.

Problems that take many years to create aren't solved in months. But most of this problem has occurred in 50 years, not really 500. And, on the plus side, we don't by any measure have a shortage of wealth. Technology is creating wealth faster than even Americans can consume it. But what to do?

Adjustments could be made on many fronts, such as energy policy, healthcare, and education, but let's examine just the financial front. We need to mitigate the employment shock waves of the upcoming technology tsunamis with laws that balance corporate and personal interests. Plain-and-simple, this means "progressive taxation." And if the concentration of wealth is such that one person possesses the wealth of 42 million people, then the rate of "progression" has to be equivalently steep.

Most reasonable people inherently find laws that force redistribution of wealth to be troublesome. Progressive tax rates simply feed the governance machine that is just as self-perpetuating as the stock manipulators. Left to its own, government can't stop itself, as evidenced so gloriously by America's Congress, which doesn't have to live by the laws it decrees or the taxes it levies.

Possibly the best hope, more effective than a minimum wage law (which solves so little), is to enact laws that limit top executive total compensation—no-loopholes for stocks—to a multiple of the lowest paid employee. This still allows unfettered capitalism because it does not put an absolute limit on anyone's ability to concentrate wealth; it simply forces them to bring others along with them. Imagine even a multiple limit of 100: if an executive makes $10 million per year, the lowest paid employee must get $100,000. Or how about a hybrid? (Hybrids always win, by the way.) The portion of executive salary below the 100 multiple is taxed at X percent; the portion of an executive's salary above the 100 multiple is taxed at 2X percent. Now consider non-profit companies, such as the National Football League. To get the benefit of not sharing as much of their revenue with the public as a for-profit company does, shouldn’t the executive income multiple be lower… perhaps 10 times the lowest paid employee? Shouldn't such a law be easy to enact for non-profits?

The wonderful engine of corporate America is only that—our engine. It must be balanced by choices we make: choosing activities that produce truly long-term wealth and avoid its ungoverned concentration, and basing decisions on sustainability instead of growth. There is no question that, unabated, our businesses will continue to merge until there is one database, one human resources department, one CEO, one Board of Directors, one set of warehouses, one railroad, and one employee... or pretty close to it. Technology is the only root cause. It is neither evil nor good and there is no stopping it, nor should stopping it be any sort of goal. But it forces us to choose, not simply watch its effects ignorantly, powerlessly, and selfishly. And if we don’t choose the right balance between concentrating and distributing forces, technology will drive our children off a cliff.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

8 Small Problems that Indicate American Leadership Is Broken

America has big problems. Take your choice... from poverty, wars we can't leave, unaffordable healthcare, policemen shooting citizens in the back, or long lines at Starbucks. And we no more expect our politicians to move these societal mountains than to wipe away the drought plaguing California. Whether you blame 200-year old laws that were intentionally designed to govern (as in 'limit') not the citizens but the lawmakers (brilliant!), or selfish infighting of the current lawmakers is a debate that won't be undertaken here. But a look at our smaller problems—those we should able to solve—reveals a troubling situation: a complete paralysis of our leadership system. Let's start with the easiest, least debatable.

Number 8: The metric system.

If Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers and world's greatest scientists, were alive today to see that the US clings to the non-scientific measurement system of his era he would be appalled and embarrassed. Today, we are with only Liberia and Myanmar in not adopting the metric system. This is the first item on our list because it would not cost a single penny nor call for a single tax increase for the change to be made. All that is required is a declaration that schools and business are to use only the metric system, and that all government purchases and products will be in metric... not in 10 years... now. No laws or fines or punishments are needed. We can suffer with the occasional transition pains, even mixed highway signs. Contrary to the predictable naysayers' nonsense about all the conversion 'costs,' the transition will work quite the contrary. As soon as the declaration is made, a fire will be lit under all sorts of businesses as all of our signage and printing of every sort is redone. With any such change that is both across-the-board and promotes efficiency, increased business activity only increases our collective wealth. So-called leaders who "don't know what a meter is" shall be given one-way tickets to any vacation spot in the world, as long as it's Liberia or Myanmar.

Number 7: Adopt-a-Highway. Many states now promote programs that leave the cleaning of our roads to the citizens. Do you have to be a technological genius to understand how stupid it is to have individuals cleaning roadsides with their hands, rather than using the best machines that money can buy? A single industrial vacuum truck can do the work of 1,000 people, and almost certainly consume fewer resources, from food to fossil fuels and even medicine for backaches. This is not a job for humans, whether professional road cleaners, prisoners in a chain gang, or office workers conscripted by their employer and pretending to help their community. If you can't understand this logic, you are part of the problem, not the solution. And you certainly are not fit to lead.

Number 6: Sales tax on the Internet.

The Internet is now a routine and vital portion of commerce. It's time to stop pretending that commerce done through it somehow is invisible or needs to be given special advantage, let alone subsidized. If sales taxes are a vital portion of virtually all states' means of providing public infrastructure, then let's stop the charade and collect sales tax wherever those businesses use that infrastructure to enrich their owners.

Number 5: The Non-Profit NFL.

You've probably heard by now that the NFL, one of the most profitable organizations in the world, at about $1 billion profit per year, gets non-profit tax benefits. The origin of that status might have been valid, but the current state constitutes corrupt theft from the citizens as a whole, sanctioned by those we elected to protect our interests. I suspect they get free Superbowl tickets; would you bet me against that? Solving this problem gets to the matter of one of our hard problems, inequality. While the simple solution is to take away the NFL's non-profit status, the authentic solution is more difficult... much more difficult. We need to change the rules that qualify an organization as non-profit, and the only way is this rule: the highest-remunerated person (whether CEO, board member, congressman, or former-politician-guest-speaker) from non-profit proceeds cannot have a total compensation of more than 10 times that of any other employee... no loopholes, not even for contracted employees. Notice that this puts no limit on any of the Roger Goodells of the world; the NFL janitor will merely have to get $4M per year. Or they simply pay the same taxes toward public infrastructure as any other profitable company.

Number 4: States competing to woo companies.

Whether it's giving tax breaks and free land to car companies to choose which state to locate in, or New Jersey  Governor Christie giving a quarter-billion-dollar tax reimbursement to the now bankrupt Revel casino, this insanity must stop. Yes, competition is generally the engine that makes our country so strong, but if our tax structures are wrong, change them; don't negotiate away the citizens' tax dollars in special deals that give away the house and generally seem to fall short.

Number 3: Spam mail, computer viruses, credit card fraud, and marketing robocalls.

OK, these are more technically difficult to remedy, especially with the offshore element of Internet problems, but modernized laws with real teeth would be a good first step. Must we really have computers that don't have to at least identify the provider/manufacturer of every bit of code running on them, revealing the intruders by omission??? And the vast majority of what's called 'identity theft' is actually just credit card fraud that we refuse to get tough on; if we had real competition in the credit industry, we'd be able to get services from companies that don't tolerate—subsidize actually—the fraud. They'd do this by using more secure cards and supporting 'purchase tiers' that depend on the security and amount of the transaction type (face-to-face/phone/Web).

Number 2: Teachers buying their students' schools supplies.

We talk a lot about inequality these days, and the selfish moralists like to paint it as a complaint of the under-motivated and irresponsible. But let's try a different yardstick for measuring an unequal distribution of our country's wealth. Perhaps like me, you know a schoolteacher who's said they have to chip in to pay for school supplies for their class (or worse, have their students bring in things like tissues for extra credit), in this, the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Apple, a company grown by the American educational system, has about $180 billion in cash right now. Just the interest on that would pay for all the K-12 school supplies in the US, about $50 per student for 50 million students. How's that for inequality? All those under-motivated, irresponsible K-12ers. Not unequal enough for you? I have a better one.

Number 1: Unsupported soldiers.

However any of us feel about our endless wars, our philosophical differences go out the window as soon as the injured soldiers come home. That we are in such a state where private charities have arisen to fill the gap on treating and housing wounded soldiers is an utterly inexcusable crime by all of us, but we have little alternative to holding our national leaders responsible. They should have to work from either prison or a VA hospital until every soldier is well-cared for. I don't blame the rich for having their riches, but consider that we have thousands in our country with previously unimaginable wealth, and the poster children, the Walton family with the wealth of at least 25% of Americans... all while returning soldiers are homeless and under-treated. Is that unequal enough for you? Is 'redistribution' of some of that wealth to those soldiers still a dirty word?

Leadership is about taking people ONLY where they do not want to go or don't know to go. Nothing else. It is not about speeches or celebrations or spending or advice or even negotiation; those are merely typical adjuncts of a leader's role. Our leadership system is broken because our leaders are not taking us where we need to go. I added the word 'system' to acknowledge that the problem is not about the individuals. The system is us, all of us. We have the leadership we deserve; we bought and paid for it. But we must fix it. Many of our problems, large and small, are deeply related to the pace of technological change. That pace of change means that the only solution for America's leadership problem right now is term limits.


Technology Shifts Balance of Power to...

A recent article by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times The Machines Are Coming provides a critical morsel in explaining the tidal wave of impact that technology has on jobs:
"But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis."

The effect of jobs being automated has been clear, but understanding where the power moves to is key to dealing with the problem. The author also has a nice counter to the boilerplate response we've been hearing a lot lately:
"Optimists insist that we’ve been here before, during the Industrial Revolution, when machinery replaced manual labor, and all we need is a little more education and better skills. But that is not a sufficient answer. One historical example is no guarantee of future events, and we won’t be able to compete by trying to stay one step ahead in a losing battle."