Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cutting Back the Kudzu

Long-term investors want growth products and smooth, steady upward market growth.

Short-term speculators want betting products and volatile market performance.

These two groups will always be in conflict and will always be competing for money. But the health of our economy is firmly on the side of the long-term investors.

Stocks and bonds support the economy. They provide capital for growth and a return on investment the way a home garden provides food for the table.

Speculators are the kudzu of the market. Give them room, and they will take over. Then the market will crash because no market can survive when speculation chokes off growth.

Congressional reform is about requiring speculators to be more transparent, have stricter accounting, and higher security standards. All that is good, but we also need to limit the actual volume of speculation, both in the market and in the unregulated areas that speculators naturally seek out.

We must start treating speculators like kudzu. You never get rid of kudzu completely. Cutting it back is an ongoing job.

It is the nature of speculators to seek out new things to bet on, and the less regulated, the better. Just this year, a market opened up to bet on box office grosses. After flooding the market with junk mortgages, speculators are now sweeping up the devalued mortgages and even the tax liens for another go-round.

The government, probably the SEC, has to take on the job of staying on top of speculators--not just in regulated areas or "the market" but wherever they go.

Everybody understands the principle behind regulating casino gambling (whether or not you agree). It's not just a moral objection; it's also about the economic health of individuals and the community.

We all must understand that our economic health--in the U.S. and the whole world--depends on limiting gambling disguised as speculation, and that means constantly watching for speculation in all the forms it can take.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Whither Democracy?

Quick question that wouldn't fit into a Tweet:

We are alarmed that a notable percentage of Americans say that there may be circumstances when violence against the government may be justified. Violence is not the answer.

At the same time, many such as Noam Chomsky say that our two party-system is an illusion of democracy created by corporations to appease the masses and disguise the real nature of our corporate state. Electing more of the same corporate puppets is not the answer.

So...what is the answer?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This IS Small Government--And That Is Why It Isn't Working

For years, Republicans have argued that small government is better than large government and business is better still. Republicans want to bring corporate efficiency to government. California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman explicitly states that her experience building a business will make her a better governor (as a former ebay seller, I would disagree, but I digress).

So let's talk about bringing principles of business management to government.

Businesses don't generally come to business consultants to learn how to do what they do better. They already know how to make glass or sell vacuums or whatever it is they do. They come to learn how to do the business end better. They come to learn why their growing business that was working so well is now dysfunctional. It's harder to schedule meetings. Executives are wasting time on administrative work. Stuff isn't getting done.

A business consultant takes a goal-oriented approach. Let's look at what you want to accomplish, lay out the best steps to get there, measure the man-hours to do what you need, and staff accordingly. A consultant expects that routines and structures that used to work will have to be jettisoned in favor of new ones. (Single payer, anyone?)

When I was a business consultant, I found that the many of the businesses that came to us had similar and predictable problems having to do with expanding infrastructure.

For example, three people starting a business can communicate by calling out. "Hey, did you order us some business cards?" "Yeah, be here Friday." Done. At a dozen people, you can't shout, but you can still get up and walk into someone's office for most communication. At 30 people, you need to rely more on email, and so on.

At each stage of growth, there has to be more structure to support the organization. Things you can do casually in a small group have to be structured for a larger group. Roles become more specialized. Quality control and layers of accountability enter the picture. It all gets more complicated, and there's no getting around that if you want to function properly.

That undisputed principle was behind the 1982 business bestseller In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. Peters believed that by keeping businesses under 200 employees or so, you could prevent it from getting bogged down in administration. Thus it would be both more responsive to market changes and more profitable. When a business grew too much, you were supposed to spin off a unit into a new business.

Coincidentally, this was around the same time that Ronald Reagan was telling us that smaller government would be less wasteful and more responsive to change.

But just as Reagan's small government utopia didn't quite turn out as advertised, the promise of small business didn't solve every problem.

Even a cluster of businesses has to be managed, and that creates some administrative overhead. Moreover, managing multiple autonomous businesses can be like herding cats--much more challenging than managing subordinate departments.

And, some businesses have so many moving parts that they can't achieve efficiency of scale at only 200 employees.

So again, it is undisputed that larger organizations need more infrastructure.

In 1900, the U.S. population was 76 million, about 1 million of which (1.3%) were government employees.

In 2010, the U.S. population is about 307 million, about four times what it was in 1900. By 1900 standards of 1.3% government employees, we should have about 4 million government employees. In fact, we only have 2.15 million, and this is the highest federal payroll ever.

Small government advocates should be delighted by how we've kept expansion down. Instead, they claim it is a "return to the era of big government." They claim that government is inadequate to its many tasks because it is a "bloated bureaucracy."

The truth is, it's just inadequate.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Giving Idea Manipulation A Name

One of the most influential teachers I had was my 8th grade journalism teacher, Judy Murray. Our class of 1970s 8th graders were not a politically charged bunch, nor did we think about being manipulated, but she set out to change that. In doing so, she solidified my lifelong interest in advertising and media manipulation (thanks, Ms. Murray!).

Naming the techniques of argument and advertising is powerful. By doing so, Ms. Murray gave me the tools to separate the actual argument from the distracting technique and a way to label specious arguments (and those who rely on them too much). Propaganda was not fully taught in college speech, college logic, or law school--but it should have been.

The reason I bring this up is that I don't see these techniques taught or discussed, not in school, not in the media. What I do see is people struggling to explain why an argument doesn't sound right. And I don't see any attempt to discuss patterns of arguments beyond appeals to fear. I've been guilty of not using the correct terminology as well, and I pledge to do better.

Recently @Shoq talked about fact-checking as the core of reliable journalism. We have to loudly call out lies as lies. The next step in draining the swamp is to call out misleading argument techniques for what they are.

The PROPAGANDA TECHNIQUE LIST plus historical examples from around the world--hours of teaching material! Be sure to scroll down to the tiny links at the very bottom of the page. There is even more here than I learned in 8th grade, and it's all important.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Plus Ca Change

I think it was the recent Fox News nostalgia tour that started me thinking again about the parallels between 1970 and 2010. In some ways, one is a mirror image of the other. Both years feature a vocal minority protesting a President of the opposite party, but the parties are reversed.

But dig a little deeper, and things haven't changed much at all. There is still a large block of people (Guardians if you're into personality tests) who value the status quo per se and fear anything different with the energy of a thousand suns. A lot of them live in the South. And many of them are gullible, inclined to believe a stranger talking hate over their own friends and neighbors. Sound familiar?

My dad is a Republican, but he values smart over stupid too much to love the status quo. When I was little, this was one of our favorite "songs." It's really a speech recited over music, but it got played on the radio. And yes, Charlie Daniels was once counterculture. The song is long, so I summarized the setup to get you to the funny stuff sooner.

Try substituting teabagger for redneck and Obama for McGovern, and it's like time stood still.


[long-haired young man driving from WV to CA gets a flat tire on his Chevy near a redneck bar in Mississippi]

I stuffed my hair up under my hat and told the bartender that I had a flat, and would he be kind enough to give me change for a one?

There was one thing I was sure proud to see: there wasn't a soul in the place except for him and me. He just looked disgusted and pointed toward the telephone.

I called up the station down the road a ways. He said he wasn't very busy today, and he could have somone out there in just about 10 minutes or so,

He said," Now, you just stay right where yer at!" and I didn't bother to tell the darn fool that I sure as hell didn't have anyplace else to go.

So I ordered up a beer and sat down at the bar when some guy walked in and said, "Who owns this car with the peace sign, the mag wheels and the four on the floor?"

He looked at me and I damn near died, and I decided that I'd just wait outside, so I laid a dollar on the bar and headed for the door.

Just when I wthought I'd get outta there with my skin, these 3 big dudes come strollin' in with one old drunk chick and some fella with green teeth.

Now the last thing I wanted was to get into a fight in Jackson Mississippi on a Saturday night, especially when there was three of them and only one of me.

I was almost to the door when the biggest one said, "You tip your hat to this lady, son!" And when I did, all that hair fell out from underneath.

They all started laughin' and I felt kinda sick, and I knew I better think of something pretty quick, so I just reached out and kicked old green teeth right in the knee

Now he let out a yell that'd curl yer hair, but before he could move I grabbed me a chair and said, "Now watch him, folks, 'cause he's a fairly dangerous man!"

"You may not know it but this man is a spy. He's a undercover agent for the FBI, and he's been sent down here to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan!"

He was still bent over holdin on to his knee, but everybody else was looking and listening to me, and I laid it on thicker and heavier as I went.

"He's a friend of them long-haired, hippy-type, pinko fags! I betcha he's even got a commie flag tacked up on the wall inside of his garage."

"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys. He may look dumb but that's just a disguise. He's a mastermind in the ways of espionage!"

"Would you believe this man has gone as far as tearing Wallace stickers off the bumpers of cars. And he voted for George McGovern for President."

They started lookin real suspicious at him. He jumped up and said, "Now just wait a minute Jim! You know he's lying; I been living here all of my life!"

"I'm a faithful follower of Brother John Birch, and I belong to the Antioch Baptist Church, and I ain't even got a garage. You can call home and ask my wife!"

Then he started saying somethin bout the way I was dressed, but I didn't wait around to hear the rest. I was too busy moving and hoping I didn't run outta luck.

When I hit the door I was making tracks, and they were just taking my car down off the jacks, so I threw the man a twenty and jumped in and fired that mother up.

Mario Andretti woulda sure been proud of the way I was movin when I passed that crowd coming out the door and headed toward me at a trot.

Now I guess I should have gone ahead and run, but somehow I just couldn't resist the fun of chasing them all just once around the parking lot.

I had them all out there steppin' and fetchin' like their heads was on fire and their asses was catchin'
then I figgered I had better go ahead and split before the cops got there.

When I hit the road I was really wheelin' had gravel flyin' and rubber squealin' and I didn't slow down till I was almost to Arkansas.

I think I'm gonna reroute my trip. I wonder if anybody'd think I'd flipped if I went to L.A. via Omaha?