Sharing the Wealth
For the most part I don't spend a lot of time thinking about politics and government. It's not what I'm about. I'm a techie, not a politico. I don't have a natural feel for politics. I've spent my life working with machines, not people. In this blog I have sought to avoid hot-button issues. It's not that I don't have opinions about politics, religion etc. It's just that, here in the blogosphere, there's no better way to provoke a flame war. In these pages I want to have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than that. I want to have a discussion, not an argument. I want to guide my readers toward their better selves. If you're looking for the lowest common denominator, look elsewhere.
On those occasions when I do find myself dwelling on such messy topics, I worry. After a lifetime spent working as a fix-it guy, I think I have a pretty good feel for when something is working or not. Religion is a crock. Our government is broken. Our economy is shaky.
In this country religion is generally regarded as a private affair. That's fine. I'll leave you to it. Knock yourself out.
Government, on the other hand, is emphatically public. It is our right and our obligation to wade in with whatever we've got. What I've got is too much regulation and too little money. I don't expect you to get all excited about my personal problems. Haply I am not alone. My plan here is to let some other guys do most of the talking.
First up is Philip K. Howard talking about how to fix the legal system.
If you don't have bandwidth for the video, follow this link for an interactive transcript. Look for the title in the top right corner of the page.
Now for my take on the pernicious influence of money on our government:
If you have plenty of money, you're more equal than the rest of us. You can afford more lawyers and lobbyists and campaign contributions, all the sorts of things that command attention inside the Beltway. That's great for you. You are living the American Dream. But where does that leave the rest of us?
Plutocracy is antidemocratic by definition. Like most kids I was raised to be a patriot, so antidemocratic trends bother me. The nation I was taught to believe in — the nation whose Constitution I once swore to preserve, protect and defend — was designed as a democracy.
Let's talk baseball: America's pastime. In old movies everybody pays a nickel for a seat on the bleachers. Now most of the old ballparks are history, and the glitzy new baseball stadia, typically named for corporations or business leaders, are equipped with skyboxes. The new aristocracy can sit in air conditioned comfort. They don't have to share a splintery bench with hoi polloi.
There is a law of economics called the Pareto Principle. One variant says that eighty percent of the wealth is owned by twenty percent of the population. That's a rule of thumb, apparently a natural consequence of human behavior. Vilfredo Pareto derived those figures in 1906. The ratio I remember from my school days was closer to 90/10. Over the last twenty years things have gotten even more lopsided. That is an antidemocratic trend. George Carlin noticed it, too. I'm not going to embed his video here, because George uses stronger language than I do. Click here if you like George and can tolerate his profanity. To my desensitized ears George's tone sounds altogether reasonable.
Here's Bill Moyers with a similar message from a man whose reputation for mild speech is impeccable.
A transcript can be found here. You'll have to scroll about halfway down, or search for the word 'plutonomy'.
My point is that America is not supposed to have aristocrats. We once had a revolution to get rid of them. Does the reappearance of a plutocratic oligarchy mean that we have at long last lost the American Revolution? How long will it be until some corporate magnate (or puppet thereof) declares himself emperor? It happened in Rome. We remember (not too fondly, I think) the Roman Empire, but we tend to forget that Rome grew to greatness as a republic. Are we condemned to repeat history?
I don't have a ready fix for this problem. I suspect that the remedy, if any, will be painful for all concerned. That's one of the reasons I worry. Meanwhile I invite you to consider how evocative the words "trickle down theory" are of the view from the bottom of a toilet.
A Mandatory Lesson for MBAs
Money segues naturally into economics, which is the last part of today's agenda. Economics is not one of the 'hard' sciences like chemistry or physics, but the laws of economics are equally effective at setting hard limits on what is possible in our world. Businesses do well to align their practices with economic principles and can only violate those precepts at their peril. The study of economics is a 'soft' social science. It's rules are often rules of thumb, like the Pareto Principle, and not exact formulae. Sometimes the right way to proceed is subject to (mis)interpretation. Avarice can skew the calculation. That does not invalidate the basic law, however. Inexorable economics will come back to bite the voracious businessman. Therein lies both the solution and the problem. Greed finds its comeuppance, but the backwash can overwhelm innocent bystanders.
I leave you with a podcast from Pavan Sukhdev, who wants to put nature on the balance sheet. Again, if you can't watch the video, here is an excellent transcript.
Updated: 9:39 PM GMT on February 25, 2011
A A A
A Rest Area on the Information Superhighway
Every so often, approximately every two weeks, time begins to add up. There are no obvious outward signs. With an uneaten loaf of bread you'd notice little spots of mold after a while. Milk goes sour, and there's usually an expired freshness date on the carton. Eggs... well, we probably don't want to think too much about what happens to eggs. On a blog there's just not much to go by. It's a subjective thing. Here on this blog I am the honcho, the primary instigator, so it comes down to me to decide. I don't have a set schedule. I'm not a Type A personality who is driven to achieve. Nevertheless, in some indirect and invisible way, I know when it's time. My blog goes stale. There's a niggling little alarm, a Sonalert, going off in the back of my head. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.
When that happens, there's no help for it. I have to write a new entry. Somehow I have to come up with a new idea and commit it to paper. Well, not actual physical paper, but you know what I mean. Gotta type it and upload it, and only then can I rest easy.
Coming up with an idea is not usually the hard part. The hard part is the typing. I'm a fair typist, I suppose. I've even had lessons — for six weeks one summer at the Burlington Business College. (Come to think of it, I could probably patch up a passable post based on that singular episode alone.) The folks at BBC made sure I became a full-fledged two-fisted typist, none of this hunt and peck business. Nonetheless, as a facile interface between my mind and the digital domain, typing falls woefully short of the mark. I can think 'way faster than I can type. Therein lies the problem.
There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.
...Or in this case, twixt mind and keyboard. Perhaps the worst offender is the CAPS LOCK key. Mine is above the left Shift key. I hit it by mistake all the time. In fact it would be fair to say that I only ever hit it by mistake, because I seldom have any legitimate use for the danged thing at all. Why don't they put it up in the corner with Scroll Lock and Num Lock, where it belongs? That's a rhetorical question. I already know the answer. I learned to type on old style mechanical typewriters. The CAPS LOCK key inherits its position from those clunky historical relics. Goodness knows we wouldn't want to flout such a well-established, ancient and honorable convention.
See, the thing is, on the old mechanical machines there was not a usability problem. The unmarked round keys on the BBC's sturdy black Royal typewriter had a completely different feel. You had to depress the shift lock about an inch for it to engage. There was a clunk and a vibration that traveled right up your arm. It was absolutely not something that was likely to happen by accident without your realizing it. But now, on my cool white ergonomic Microsoft Natural keyboard, all the keys have the same soft touch. CAPS LOCK triggers a green LED when it engages, but I'm not looking at the diode when I type. My first clue arrives WHEN THE TEXT STARTS SHOUTING AT ME, AND i HAVE TO BACKTRACK AND DO IT ALL OVER.
Another similar problem occurs if the fingers of either hand stray off the home keys. Eventually I look up and notice that I've suddenly started typing gibberish. The effect is the same: back up and try again.
One group of recurring interruptions cannot be avoided. I am an animal. I must eat, drink and sleep. I must adjourn periodically to the restroom. I get tired. Sometimes, when I'm working late, I fall asleep at the console. Most nights I retain the presence of mind to rouse, arise and take myself to bed.
I get distracted easily. I generally keep two or three other programs running on my computer besides the editor. Outlook announces arriving e-mail with the eerie cry of a loon. Reading and replying take a few minutes. Then I may wander off into the wide web world. Sometimes I have a good reason, such as when I need to research something. Google, Wikipedia and Dictionary.com are my friends. Basically it comes down to self-discipline. Sometimes I have it; sometimes it goes AWOL. The computer is a portal to endless distractions, which dwell only a few mouse clicks away. Perhaps I have time for one quick game of FreeCell...
There are external sources of interruption. The phone may ring, or the doorbell. Either one effectively breaks my chain of thought (or snaps me out of FreeCell... Huh?).
My spouse may announce that it's dinnertime. That is one exemplar of a whole class of interruptions of the form, "Stop now because it is time for X". A television show. A dental appointment. A social engagement. Whatever. I must hit the Save button, hoist my butt out of the swivel chair and walk away. The creative flow is staunched. The ideas that were bubbling in ferment slowly cool and coagulate.
When one door closes, another door opens.
So what happens when I revisit the saved file an hour, a day or a week later?
Aye, there's the rub. This is not the productive, creative scene that I left behind me. This is the aftermath of that scene. The bluebird of inspiration has flown the coop.
The good news is that I have a new block of time. I can spend part of it trying to reconstruct my thought process. The bad news is that I have time for second guessing. Do I still want to say this? Will the fine folks at Weather Underground even care what I have to say about this? Do I want to say it this way? Maybe I should change it around, try coming at it from a different angle. Maybe I should introduce additional supporting material or tie this subject in with another topic that has been incubating in my mind.
You can see where this leads. It's a miracle this blog ever gets updated at all.
Best if consumed by: 25 Feb 2011
Updated: 2:45 PM GMT on February 10, 2011
A A A