Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is It Economics or Politics? Part 1

What is going on in Washington and in the early stages of the presidential electoral process?  Are the core issues economic--deficits, entitlement over commitments, unemployment--or do they have more to do with political theory?  At first I thought this was all about the economy and how to recover from the disastrous recession worsened by unbridled speculation. However common sense responses to these economic challenges seemed to gain little traction.

After all the sensible approach--the one endorsed by almost all economists--is that the federal government should continue and probably increase stimulus expenditures in the short term in order to sustain demand in the economy and thus assist in the recovery from the Great Recession.  At the same time, long term changes are required in terms of expenditure reduction and revenue increase so that the structural and long term deficit is reduced. Admittedly this is a tricky course of action and one that requires leadership at all levels. Never has it been more true that "everything has to be on the table" than it is right now. But to let a concern with the deficit overcome a proper concern about recovery from the recession will follow the same disastrous path taken by Japan in the 1990's, its "lost decade."

There is a focus on the jobs issue, and rightly so.  As long as unemployment is at 9+%--actually probably more in the middle teens since those who have stopped looking are not counted--consumer demand, the mother's milk of the U.S. economy, cannot possibly be strong& enough to support a recovery. It would seem that the problem is how to create jobs by somehow encouraging businesses to invest in new products and services and thus hire the people needed for that investment. The problem is that in general U.S. businesses are sitting on a huge amount of cash but are unwilling to invest because there is not sufficient demand. This is the classic reason for government stimulus to create the demand that then creates the jobs that then further increase demand, but consumer demand this time. So how come we don't agree to do this?

I think the answer is that the agenda of many in Washington has more to do with political philosophy and not economics.  I believe they are using the economic woes of the country to justify political actions that will materially weaken the central, that is federal government, in order to implement what they believe to be the fundamental political principles of the American experiment. Flying under the banner of "no new taxes" and "we must reduce the deficit," are a powerful and coherent group of conservative activists whose true agenda was aptly described by Grover Norquist, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."  

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 Lesson for Politicians...and You and Me

January 2002
We are about to remember the events of September 11, well we should.  Personally I have tried not to pay attention to the hype that began a month ago and which will reach a crescendo Sunday September 11.  I am especially avoiding the speeches and comments by politicians about that day and its meaning for America.

As I reflect on what happened that day, I keep thinking about the actions of people we have come to call "first responders."  These are police, fire, and emergency professionals from numerous governmental agencies and jurisdictions.  Their job is to protect, serve and rescue us when we are confronted with crises and danger.

On that fateful day in 2001, thousands of first responders entered the damaged and burning twin towers to find and rescue people.  They knew they were placing their lives in jeopardy but just as surely they knew what their calling was and proceeded with profound and unmistakable courage.  They placed their lives in jeopardy to serve the citizens they were sworn to protect.  Perhaps few of them ever thought it would come to risking their life in such a horrendous fashion but each knew that if it should come to pass their training and character would provide them the strength to fulfill their mission of service.

I am sure that there will be no end of speeches by politicians about all this.  Many will praise these first responders without understanding the central message for them.  We elect you to serve and protect us and the common good.  Your prime objective is service not the saving of your own political lives.  We have a right to expect that you will be guided by values of service and courage and not by the need to satisfy special interests, whether on the left or right, whether liberal or conservative, whether business or labor, etc.  We have seen enough of politicians who play footsie with special interests of all types, especially those with checkbooks open and pens ready.

It is sometimes said that politicians are motivated by fear and the biggest fear is not being re-elected.  Those first responders surely felt fear for their lives and yet they proceeded to carry out their duties to all of us.  Politicians need to walk up to the fear of not being elected and proceed to do their duty to all of us without making  political compromises to insure their re-election.

The lesson is clear for all of us, not just politicians.  We are called to live out our lives in accord with our deepest values not in order to achieve success, high regard from others, or power.  The example of those first responders can help us consider our deepest commitments and resolve to live those out in our lives.  A message for all of us including politicians.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Penny a Bit

Jaron Lanier
I have just finished reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Here is what the book jacket says about him:  "Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary since the 1980's, was among the first to predict the revolutionary changes the World Wide Web would bring to commerce and culture."  The book is relatively short but very heavy going, at least for me.

It is a fascinating critique of the web, especially what he calls web 2.0, and it's call for open and free architecture and content as well as the ultimate wisdom of the hive, the mass of people interacting over the internet.  It is interesting to read what an accomplished technologist--and musical artist--thinks of the internet and the web.  He see strong positives as well as some important dangers.

One idea that resonated with me is that the vast majority of content on the web is not new and creative but reworking of previously existing content, often "mashed up" to seem new.  In the "mash up" process individual contributors are rarely identified and that is a conscious cultural norm.  The whole idea is that millions of people interacting on the web are a better path to truth or at least accuracy than experts creating content based on their expertise and research. This is the "hive mind" that represents the best hope of the web 2.0 world.  The problem is that it leads to a reduction to the mean.  Individual creativity, spontaneity, and idiosyncrasy are worn down by the relentless drive of the "hive mind" to coalesce around a single answer or set of answers.  Anonymous postings, 142 character tweets, and unverified Facebook postings are examples of what can go wrong.

This helped explain to me why I typically lose patience with cable news coverage as well as the local newspaper.  When news happens, both seem to be flooded with variants of i-reporters who know next to nothing about what happened but are more than willing to share their reactions and feelings.  Rather than near from knowledgeable news sources and experts, we get comments from people "like us" because this apparently is the best way to get to the reality of what happened.  Wrong.  The best way to get there is to listen to and read people who know what they are talking about.

This can happen because all content is free or ought to be according to the web 2.0 advocates.  This is a good thing and I applaud it from one point of view.  But from another, it means that I have to put up with a lot of uncreative, rehashed content.  He has a simple but probably impractical idea.  Everybody should pay to view content.  This payment would replace current ISP monthly fees and should be calibrated to about equal those fees.  The important part of his suggestion, however, is that the payment would be net of payments made by others to view your content.  Thus if you view a lot of content but very few people find your content interesting or you don't really post anything other than Facebook postings and tweets, your monthly payments would be higher than someone whose content other found interesting and creative. Such a system would encourage people to create and post content that was creative and interesting.  It would value actual websites rather than cookie cutter frameworks like Facebook.

I am not sure I have done Lanier's suggestion credit but I think he is on to something.  Pick up the book and give it try.