Tag Archives: United States

Greetings from the Land of Make Believe

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So today is my 518th day as a returning (rehabbing?) resident of the land of the free and the home of the…. well thats a long list. Anyone who has had to spend more than a few minutes with me knows that my transition back to America has had its ups and downs. For the first six months, I really struggled. Of course that was exacerbated by the fact that I actually thought there was a chance that we’d have a Republican Congress AND President. At one point I was wondering where the camera would be installed in my bedroom.

Over the past year, I have for the most part adjusted to Boston (see “Time Flies and so do I”). Its a nice town and it has the benefit of being close to our summer home in the Cape. Now if I could just get summer to last more than 2 months! We really do like it here. My yearnings for our former home in London have continued to decline over time albeit with occasional lapses. My visit earlier this month was one of these. I’m not sure if its a case of “Bright Lights, Big City” or “Lots of Friends, Big Ego”, but I really didn’t want to leave.

In addition to whatever social/food/travel differences exist, there are also many things that someone with left of center sensibilities has to learn to deal with in America. Theres the divisive government with one party viewing success by the other’s failure. We have the NSA spying because “they can”, not necessarily because it’s necessary, not to mention that I’m pretty sure that they have no f’n clue as to what to do with the information other than save it for future use. That should scare everyone who can remember, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Of course, there’s guns. Every American should have one or TEN. These days my favorite is healthcare. Americans still don’t understand that they already had socialized medicine before Obamacare. It’s just that it was done in a way that if we put the 50 smartest people in the world into a room and told them to come up with the worst value for results process, they couldn’t possibly come up with the American health care system.

All of this is wrapped up in a nice little bow that is the fact that Americans believe that they are the best at EVERYTHING. While we are the best at lots of things, its not possible to be the best at everything. This belief just forecloses intelligent debate and discourse on many topics.

Anyway, thats not really why I’m writing this evening. Right now, I’m in Orlando with my just turned 10 year old daughter doing a tour of non-Disney theme parks. She is amazing! Funny, smart, great stamina (I wanted to leave the park before she did as I was exhausted) and so brave. She has gone on just about every ride at the two Universal parks and loved every minute. Before this trip she has been a reticent rider at best. Now, no fear. It has been great to spend so much time with her and build our bond.

The real point of tonights rambling is that IMHO, no where on Earth other than America could a place such as Orlando exist. I mean this in the best way possible. This truly is a land of fun and dreams. Even if I don’t take into consideration the surfeit of English accents, as you may know the Brits love Florida and theme parks, the place really is amazing. It’s also quintessentially American.

America is the place where the creative so seamlessly meets the commercial. As one walks through the Universal Studio parks, you realize that the thousands of people in the park are there to enjoy rides and shows based on movies that were blockbusters around the world. So not only did the movies; Harry Potter, SpiderMan,  Jurassic Park, and Shrek to just name a few, thrill millions of viewers and gross billions of dollars, the virtuous cycle continues in the park. 

Nowhere else could such mediocre casual dining food be so good and so much fun to eat. Theres Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville where performers make kids laugh while you have three drinks and dinner in 45 minutes. The worlds largest Hard Rock Cafe awaits you with the usual food and great music. I’ll bet there aren’t any BK Whopper Bars in Paris! Heck there’s even an NASCAR Cafe that can make this Yankee want to hit the track. photo-2

The best part of the whole thing is that everyone working at the parks is helpful and pleasant. We haven’t encountered a single surly person. Our visit has been truly a pleasure. Oh and before I forget, 75 degrees beats the heck out of 15.

So I guess theres nothing really new here. We already know that America’s greatest export is its pleasure culture. It ain’t Shakespeare, Mozart, or even Bergman but it is ours.

Know what? It’s not all that bad…….. 

On to Tampa!

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Remember, Economics are Just Opinions and Opinions are Like……

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Some of you may be aware that this Thursday will bring strikes and rallies in 100 American Cities. These strikes and rallies will be held in and near fast food restaurants across the country. The strikers will be rallying in support of a living wage for fast food employees. Presently, the average fast food worker earns between $8-9 dollars per hour. This is significantly below the official poverty level in the United States. The strikers seek a minimum wage of $15 per hour ($30,000 per year assuming a 40 hour work week) and the right to organize.

This is an issue that is seemingly gaining steam. While there is no traction for a minimum wage increase at the federal level (Congress likely wouldn’t vote on observing Christmas if it was put to a vote), there are a number of states that have either passed laws for higher minimum wage or are debating them at this time.

Additionally, there seems to be increasing support from a diverse group of interests in finding a way to mitigate inequality. A number of economists including Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, and Jeffrey Sachs have come out in support of raising the minimum wage as a way to create greater equality. They noted that the minimum wage has declined in real dollar terms from $12 to $7.25 in the past 45 years. Most interesting is the recent statement from Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium, a manifesto for the renewal of the church. In the document the Pope decries trickle down economics and inequality.

[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

Of course, the other side is in an uproar. In addition to some of the usual suspects (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh) branding the Pope a Marxist or a Socialist, there is real concern among the business community around the possibility that their labor costs may increase. They realize correctly, that if the movement gets traction in the fast food sector and in some of the higher population stats that there will be a defacto national increase in the minimum wage regardless of the federal governments inaction. Walmart and other retailers are more than a bit interested in what happens this week.

The central argument against a minimum wage increase is and always has been the same. It is an oversimplified supply and demand argument. Basically for a given demand curve for labor, if price goes up, demand will go down. So it would follow that if the minimum wage goes up, then the people that the increase was intended to benefit would be hurt as businesses would cut employment. This argument is laden with a number of assumptions:

1) Businesses have no pricing power and would have to fully absorb the increased cost of labor. If we assume that this isn’t true (if you have been to the supermarket lately you know this isn’t true) then we understand that business will likely pass some of the increased cost along to everyone. This is especially true if ALL businesses are impacted by the increase in labor cost.

2) That there is a one for one relationship between labor costs and total costs. Again a fallacy. McDonalds labor costs are approximately 20% of revenue. Walmart’s are much lower, say 2-3%. So again, the cost of a Big Mac wouldn’t double. It would increase somewhat but by less than one initially assumes.

3) Large retailers and fast food restaurants can make significant cuts in labor and still serve their customers. Have you been to a McD’s or a Walmart recently??? Yes, I am sure that over time there will be continued technological innovation that will reduce the units of human capital needed to produce a unit of product. I don’t think that an increase in minimum wage will materially change the pace of innovation and I am certain that if Walmart uses any less labor we will all be able to “shop” there for free.

4) None of the increased money paid in labor will be spent in the stores/restaurants that pay the labor. Even Henry Ford understood that paying workers a living wage was good because they then bought stuff that you produced. Not to mention that turnover would decrease and worker satisfaction would be better. It shouldn’t shock any one that minimum wage workers are significant customers of fast food restaurants and big box retailers. Its likely that these entities would capture a significant amount of the increased money available to minimum wage workers in the form of increased sales.

Now there is a another point. At present, there are significant social service transfers (EITC, food stamps, housing credits) to the working poor. These people aren’t the welfare mothers of Ronald Reagan. They are people who work hard in jobs that don’t pay well. We may not like the fact that some of our taxes go to support the working poor but I suspect that most of us would like the results of not supporting them even less. It’s important to note that these government subsidies are not just a transfer of wealth to poor people. They are a direct subsidy to large for profit entities in the form of wage subsidies that allow them to pay less. Also, these wage subsidies get spent in their businesses.

Now, I’m not sure which is more economically efficient higher minimum wages or government assistance, but subsidizing both poor people and corporates is essentially two government transfers and we all know how inefficient the government is. Wouldn’t it just be better to force business to pay a living wage and have them allocate their costs accordingly?

All I ask is that on Thursday you consider the state of minimum wage workers and avoid fast food restaurants and large retailers. It won’t be all that difficult and if enough of us act it will send a message to businesses to do the right thing.

Is the Internet Actually Dangerous for America?

Over the past couple of years, I have spent a lot (too much) time thinking about the fact that in many ways democracy in the United States is declining. To many this is a ridiculous statement. My friends will cite the fact that they can say anything they want, have 300 choices for their morning cereal, and that the internet is their ultimate guarantor of freedom and transparency. To many the internet is a panacea for everything that stands in the way of absolute freedom. Interestingly, many of these people refuse to use Facebook or Twitter stating that they don’t want everyone to know “their stuff”! Maybe they intuitively know that while the internet may enhance freedom, it also compromizes privacy and could be used against them at some point.

This weeks readings, build upon a theme that we have seen all semester. While many cyber-utopians believe that internet and social media in particular will move the world to a more perfect democracy, in reality the internet is only part of the complicated mosaic of human relations. Yes, the internet was an essential part of motivating and organizing the opposition forces during the Arab Spring. It is also a tool used by the militaries/governments of Egypt, Syria, and Libya to repress, control, and maintain their power. For those of you who think it could never happen here, I beg to differ.

Much like Evgney Morozov in the Net Delusion, I believe that the internet is many things, a conduit, a tool, perhaps most importantly a reflection of where a society is at a moment in time. This is why I chose the title of this blog.

It is my belief that there are a number of factors that represent risks for democracy, particularly in the US. First, we are living in an era of unprecedented corporate power. The forces of free trade and globalization have not only benefitted the large Western Democracies but their corporations. Corporates are larger and more internationally focused than at any time in the past 200 years. There really is no such thing as a national champion any more.

Is it unreasonable to think that corporate loyalties may lie more to themselves than to their respective nations? The internet companies seem to be the ultimate manifestation of this. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are huge multi-national corporations with mobile employees and operations. Google doesn’t have a $2 billion manufacturing plant ties it to a particular place. No one should believe that these firms have any loyalty to any particular nation. Evidence of this can be found in a recent Wall Street Journal article in which certain Silicon Valley leaders muse about seceding from the United States.

The second risk is that governments are being seen as failing their constituents. The government shutdown of the past month is yet another example of government failing to meet the basic needs of people. The list of government failures is long; failing schools, incomprehensible healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, and a tax code that seems to most to be unfair and inequitable. It is not hard to believe that should this trend continue that the governments in question would face questions around their legitimacy. While I don’t share their views, the Tea Party is already doing this. It is not unreasonable to envisage that there would be other non-federal government actors that would step to the fore. In the case of the US, those actors could be state and local governments, NGO’s, and corporations.

Some of these transitions are occurring. The federal government seeking to push certain mandates to the states, California discussing the possibility of giving legal status to illegal immigrants, and the continuing growth of NGO’s are all examples of power moving away from the existing center. We could argue that all of these are good things. But what happens when individuals threaten the powerbase?

When we think about the internet and its uses, we need to view it in the context of society as a whole. Certainly it is a tool that links people, lets us share, lets us shop, and makes a host of things easier. There are also examples such as during the Arab Spring of social media being an excellent tool for organizing people for action.

There is also plentiful evidence that the internet is used by governments to spy on their citizens, to spy on others and to suppress any threats to their legitimacy. This evidence does not just apply to non-democratic governments. The cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are just two examples of the world’s oldest democracy using technology to spy on its citizens and its allies. We also know that governments want to be able to turn off access to the internet and wireless communication at their command. Not too anti-democratic!!

I know that every word I read and write is tracked by someone, somewhere (perhaps you should have clicked away from this long ago). Your clicks are tracked too! Not only is it tracked but it is stored indefinitely. This really concerns me.

Bottom line is this. If you have a government that is dominated by a few, that is failing in its basic obligations to its citizens, eventually its citizens will challenge its authority or at least I believe that they will. If this occurs, do you believe that the internet and social media will be a tool for freedom or for repression? Do you believe that the people with the most to lose will allow the tools that we have to be used against them or will they use those tools to maintain their power at any cost?

I don’t know the answer but I certainly am not a cyber-utopian.

Those of you that don’t think it can happen here need to ask yourselves why.

What do you think?

New Media Didn’t Kill the Press, Corporates Did!!

I can clearly recall sitting in a lecture center at the University at Albany. It was the fall of 1989, my 11th and final year as an undergraduate (for those of you who are interested in that story, I’m available for a drink at any time). We had a guest lecturer in our Political Science class and while most students wanted to talk about the revolutionary events that were unfolding in Europe, Lee Mirngoff was trying to tell the 200 students in the room that there was something else happening that deserved their attention.

What Professor Miringoff was trying to tell us was that the ongoing and acceleration of media mergers and takeovers especially of newspapers and television networks would have far reaching implications about how we got our information. More importantly he cautioned that the incentives of non-media companies owning news outlets would create not only a focus on profit over quality of reporting but that these large corporations just might have incentives for suppressing or ignoring certain stories.

This was the era when Westinghouse was buying CBS, General Electric was buying NBC, and Disney was buying ABC. It was almost 10 years before Internet access was common. Heck, cable cost about $15 per month! The rational behind these mergers and the consolidation of the print news industry was that there were limited ways to distribute information and the means of production were expensive. No one saw any anti-trust issues as it appeared that options for citizens to receive news were increasing rather than decreasing.

Of course some 25 years later, here we are. We live in a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis and many Americans seem to wonder why we have more information on Lindsay Lohan than on Lindsay Graham. While many argue that Web 2.0 and the new methods of publishing have destroyed the business model for news, I argue that the traditional news media sewed the seeds of their own destruction well in advance.

Certainly new technology went a long way to destroying existing business models. But lets not forget that the reaction to the Internet of many news companies was a combination of disbelief and/or lets just charge for our service on the web. Of course, most corporate entities did what they typically do best. Lets try to do more with more. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the great journalist, Rupert Murdoch, in a ten year period doubled the amount of stories published while reducing staff.

What suffered? The very thing that made news special in the first place, investigative reporting. In a free society, the Fourth Estate (the press to those of you under 40) has an essential duty to keep government and other institutions honest. Doing this well takes time and effort. As reporters were required to write more and more stories, the time they had to investigate diminished. Whether they were reporting on a drug bust, a cat in a tree, or the 2008 financial crisis, reporters became more dependent on official sources and less dependent on sources that may have shed light on why the official sources were not exactly forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, open up any news paper not named the New York Times and tell me what percentage of stories are filed by that newspapers own reporters and how much says “from wire services”. As for television news, try to watch 30 minutes and then tell me how much time is not devoted to commercials and human interest stories.

While I am sure that this is somewhat reflective of filling audience wants, I can not help but wonder how much real investigative reporting goes undone because of resource issues or because the story would not fit the owners corporatist agenda.

So while it is clear that new media has disrupted the old models of journalism, it is also clear that the seeds of destruction were sewn well in advance.

What is the Future of News? First, do Americans care about the crusading reporter? I know that I do and I believe that many of my friends do as well.

Perhaps those of us who care need to take a multi pronged approach, much like Jay Rosen discusses in the Columbia Journalism Review article, Confidence Game.  Anyone and everyone can be a reporter. All you need to do is the work. Publishing is free. So if you get the story, it will be heard. Also, we need to find a way to secure the sites that do produce quality reporting. So whether it’s the New York Times, the Guardian, or the local guy who reports on your town’s mayor, pay for the service. Heck, pay someone that you don’t agree with for his or her service too.

Lastly, read and listen to as much news as you can and remember, always be aware of the dreaded Filter Bubble!!!

How do I Coopt my Enemies and Stay out of Trouble?

My decision to attend the Kennedy School was part of a long transition that is focused on doing SOMETHING that would enrich someone other than myself. I hoped (and still hope that) I would learn the necessary skills, to motivate, organize, and drive groups of people to action. This is actually something that I was highly effective at during my career in finance. Of course, the tools and motivations were much different in that realm than in my new chosen world of advocacy and action for the public good.

Presently, I am in the process of taking classes that will help my transition including Strategic Management of NGO’s, Science of Behavioral Change, and of course Power and Politics in the Digital Age. While I am learning a lot about what I need to do, I am also learning quite a bit about the challenges that I face.

These challenges primarily are in 2 areas. First, how can I express my true views and still get interest and buy in from people who don’t exactly share my view. While I like to think that I am reasonable and principled, I am aware that I can be aggressive and impatient.  I also know that I read the New York Times and live in Brookline, Ma, two facts that put me in a very distinct category!! Interestingly, I force myself to read the WSJ and watch Fox News just to see what the other side thinks. The point is, that I have always lived inside a “Filter Bubble”. Of course, I never had any idea how airtight that bubble was until now.

What is a Filter Bubble? Its when online providers, everyone from Google to Amazon, to Facebook give you information based on your previous activity on the net. Its big businesses attempt to target information to you in order to maximize sales. While it has the benefit of making the sheer volume of information on the web manageable, it has the effect of making YOUR decisions for YOU. Most of you don’t know this but you should and it should scare you. Basically every click you make is noted, stored, categorized, and given back to you on future searches.

I know that this scares me because it is yet one more way in which my privacy is invaded. This is the second challenge that I (we) face. Everything I do and say on the internet I assume will be monitored and more importantly, RETAINED for an unknown period of time by not only my government which I don’t always trust, but by many corporations who not only sell information to each other for commercial purposes, but to our governments. For those of us who remember the day when we said, wrote about or took photos of things that we wouldn’t want our mothers to see, those days are over. Anything that you or someone else posts about you is in the public domain forever.

For some one like me that has views that are somewhat anti-institution, the risks could be significant. How difficult would it be to alter my credit score or to alter the balances in my bank accounts? How difficult would it be for some one to create stories about me in order to discredit me and my ideas? The answer is, not very!!  Although we don’t have material evidence of this behavior in the United States, governments around the world use the Internet to propagate their views and discredit those of their perceived opposition. This is especially true in places like China and the Middle East. While I actually would like to believe that the Internet and social media are the great equalizers to corporate and government power, this is not the case.

I perceive that in order to be a successful agent for change, I will need to be a bridger. That is someone who can both create a message that is neither left nor right and someone who can use social media tools to reach out to people who aren’t just like me demographically. I will need to break out of the over educated, East Coast, affluent world to find people who while looking different share the same concerns about our great nation and where WE want it to go.

If I am successful at this, there is no doubt that I will incur risk from the institutions that I seek to weaken or alter. I’m not sure that there’s much I can do to protect myself from this as much of my life is already out there.  This is not something that I am concerned about. You can be certain that I am concerned about the digital world that my children are growing up in. You can also be certain that this is a topic of conversation at the dinner table EVERY night. Hopefully my daughters will use these tools to THEIR advantage while retaining as much of their privacy as possible.