Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hope Against Hope

by Eric Utne

Note: This is an essay by Eric Utne in the Utne Reader, Nov-Dec, 2012, p92. I don't often copy someone's essay and place in on my blog, but this was so well stated I wanted to share it with you without my interpretation. Please subscribe to Utne Reader. It's a wonderful, valuable asset.

I don't know about you, but I've been very disappointed by Barack Obama's presidency. Yet, despite of my disappointment' I'm going to do everything I can to support his reelection. 

Like so many people, I was inspired by his "hope" speech at the Democratic National Convention eight years ago. And I was truly engaged by his promising "Change You Can Believe In" campaign four years ago. In his Grant Park victory speech, President-elect Obama spoke directly to the young people who'd done so much to win him the vote: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there:'

The joyous faces of the people who flocked to Washington for the historic inaugural reflected the county's deep longing for the change that Obama's election promised. That election seemed to herald a new era that would get our country back on a more democratic and progressive path. Our expectations were high. We looked forward to stronger environmental protections, the development of renewable energy
and the creation of green jobs. We assumed that the growing threats to civil liberties, most grievously on display at Guantanamo Bay, would be reversed and that our government would once again champion the cause of social justice. We were thrilled to think at long last that Americans would have universal health care. I
even assumed that the Serve America program, which advocated volunteer service for all ages, would be implemented. We began to imagine that the U.S. could have more harmonious and collaborative relations at home and abroad. Most urgently, the U.S. and world financial system had nearly collapsed and we expected that at the very least the fiscal recklessness of the financial sector that had caused such harm would lead to prudent and stringent financial regulations. I even half-expected leading Wall Street bankers to be put in stocks and publicly pilloried in Zuccotti Park. Wouldn't that have been satisfying?

Like many people, I'm appalled by the political gridlock in Washington and the cynicism that infects the political process. It is hopeless, you might say. But it was Bill Clinton, the man from Hope, Arkansas, himself, who turned me around by his speech at this year's DNC, with comments like this, "President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No president-not me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving and if you'll renew the President's contract you will feel it. I believe that with all my heart"

But Clinton won me over not so much by what he said as by who he is as a human being. It's not his gift for "splainin' stuff," or his ability to work with people from all sides to get things done that impresses struggles-his characteristic "I feel your pain”

I believe that Clinton's social compassion and empathy for others hold the key to what we need to do to get past the polarization and divisiveness that distorts our democracy. Social and emotional intelligence. Empathy. The ability and willingness to put ourselves in other peoples' shoes. This is not the laissezfaire, survival of the fittest, AynRandian way that currently grips some leaders of the Right.

Mystic philosopher and social innovator Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), predicted that modern society would become ever more individualistic, eventually reaching a paralytic point of divisiveness- "a war of all against all.” He saw individuation as an evolutionary step beyond group identification based on blood kinship and ethnicity. Individuation allows people to develop their unique gifts and abilities. But, Steiner said, individuation is not the end point of human evolution. Individuation tends to lead to isolation, alienation, and loneliness. We evolve beyond individualism when we develop our capacity for empathy and by creating diverse communities based not on blood kinship but on our common humanity.

When accepting his party's nomination for a second term as president, Obama echoed his 2008 Grant Park speech with these words, "America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer-but we trawl it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up .... "

This is the language for the future. Our hope lies in our compassion for our fellows and our recognition that we’re all in this together. E pluribus unum.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Economic Complexity, Economic Inequality and Governance

The Economic Complexity Index (ECI) is a measure of the amount of productive knowledge that each country holds. It accounts for differences in national economies and is a driver of economic growth. It is an indirect measure of the amount of productive tacit and explicit knowledge and how the country can combine it into a larger variety of better products. The United States ranks 13th in ECI in 2008 and 72nd in ECI growth since 1964 among 128 countries.

Dealing with complex environments external to a country and its own complex economic system requires a new type of governance. A form of this new type is being developed in Singapore, which they call “a whole of nation” approach. It has some similarities to a military tactic “leading by mission”. Whole of government depends critically on people at all levels understanding how their roles fit in with the larger national aims and objectives. The economic system inside the country has to be at least as complex as the markets served by the country.

Economic inequality at the country level decreases the health and well being of its citizens (common weal), increases violent crime, decreases education equality, decreases social mobility, decreases economic complexity and can lead to political instability. Economic inequality is often measured using the Gini Coefficient, with a range of 0 (all incomes equal) to 1(all income in one person). The United States has a Gini Coefficient of 0.41 in 2007, the 44th highest in the world.

At the country level, counties with a lower Gini Coefficient (more income equality), generally have a higher ECI (economic complexity).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Complexity and Economic Growth

“Over the past two centuries, mankind has accomplished what used to be unthinkable. When we look back at our long list of achievements, it is easy to focus on the most audacious of them, such as our conquest of the skies and the moon. Our lives, however, have been made easier and more prosperous by a large number of more modest, yet crucially important feats. Think of electric bulbs, telephones, cars, personal computers, antibiotics, TVs, refrigerators, watches and water heaters. Think of the many innovations that benefit us despite our minimal awareness of them, such as advances in port management, electric power distribution, agrochemicals and water purification.

This progress was possible because we got smarter. During the past two centuries, the amount of productive knowledge we hold expanded dramatically. This was not, however, an individual phenomenon. It was a collective phenomenon. As individuals we are not much more capable than our ancestors, but as societies we have developed the ability to make all that we have mentioned – and much, much more.

Modern societies can amass large amounts of productive knowledge because they distribute bits and pieces of it among its many members. But to make use of it, this knowledge has to be put back together through organizations and markets. Thus, individual specialization begets diversity at the national and global level. Our most prosperous modern societies are wiser, not because their citizens are individually brilliant, but because these societies hold a diversity of know how and because they are able to recombine it to create a larger variety of smarter and better products. The social accumulation of productive knowledge has not been a universal phenomenon. It has taken place in some parts of the world, but not in others. Where it has happened, it has underpinned an incredible increase in living standards. Where it has not, living standards resemble those of centuries past. The enormous income gaps between rich and poor nations are an expression of the vast differences in productive knowledge amassed by different nations. These differences are expressed in the diversity and sophistication of the things that each of them makes, which we explore in detail in this Atlas.

Just as nations differ in the amount of productive knowledge they hold, so do products. The amount of knowledge that is required to make a product can vary enormously from one good to the next. Most modern products require more knowledge than what a single person can hold. Nobody in this world, not even the saviest geek nor the most knowledgeable entrepreneur knows how to make a computer. He has to rely on others who know about battery technology, liquid crystals, microprocessor design, software development, metallurgy, milling, lean manufacturing and human resource management, among many other skills. That is why the average worker in a rich country works in a firm that is much larger and more connected than firms in poor countries. For a society to operate at a high level of total productive knowledge, individuals must know different things. Diversity of productive knowledge, however, is not enough. In order to put knowledge into productive use, societies need to reassemble these distributed bits through teams, organizations and markets.

Accumulating productive knowledge is difficult. For the most part, it is not available in books or on the Internet. It is embedded in brains and human networks. It is tacit and hard to transmit and acquire. It comes from years of experience more than from years of schooling. Productive knowledge, therefore, cannot be learned easily like a song or a poem. It requires structural changes. Just like learning a language requires changes in the structure of the brain, developing a new industry requires changes in the patterns of interaction inside an organization or society.

Expanding the amount of productive knowledge available in a country involves enlarging the set of activities that the country is able to do. This process, however, is tricky. Industries cannot exist if the requisite productive knowledge is absent, yet accumulating bits of productive knowledge will make little sense in places where the industries that require it are not present. This “chicken and egg” problem slows down the accumulation of productive knowledge. It also creates important path dependencies. It is easier for countries to move into industries that mostly reuse what they already know, since these industries require adding modest amounts of productive knowledge. By gradually adding new knowledge to what they already know, countries economize on the chicken and egg problem. That is why we find empirically that countries move from the products that they already create to others that are “close by” in terms of the productive knowledge that they require.

The Atlas of Economic Complexity attempts to measure the amount of productive knowledge that each country holds. Our measure of productive knowledge can account for the enormous income differences between the nations of the world and has the capacity to predict the rate at which countries will grow. In fact, it is much more predictive than other well known development indicators, such as those that attempt to measure competitiveness, governance and education.

A central contribution of this Atlas is the creation of a map that captures the similarity of products in terms of their knowledge requirements. This map provides paths through which productive knowledge is more easily accumulated.

We call this map, or network, the product space, and use it to locate each country, illustrating their current productive capabilities and the products that lie nearby. Ultimately, this Atlas views economic development as a social learning process, but one that is rife with pitfalls and dangers. Countries accumulate productive knowledge by developing the capacity to make a larger variety of products of increasing complexity. This process involves trial and error. It is a risky journey in search of the possible. Entrepreneurs, investors and policymakers play a fundamental role in this economic exploration.

By providing rankings, we wish to clarify the scope of the achievable, as revealed by the experience of others. By tracking progress, we offer feedback regarding current trends. By providing maps, we do not pretend to tell potential explorers where to go, but to pinpoint what is out there and what routes may be shorter or more secure. We hope this will empower these explorers with valuable information that will encourage them to take on the challenge and thus speed up the process of economic development.”

From the Preface of The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity, Hausmann, Hildago, et al,

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Age and Perspective

In the novel Assegai by Wilbur Smith, a group of men are tracking a bull elephant that is running away from them now aware of their presence. The elephant can walk faster than the men can run and unless he stops, the elephant will out pace them and arrive in a place the men cannot follow. The old man in the group warns of this probable future. The young native Loikot has a different perspective.

'Do not listen to him, M'bogo,' Loikot advised. 'It is the habit of old men to be gloomy. They can smell shit in the perfume of the kigelia[1] flower.’

I’m going to have to remind myself of this parable. Is what I see as a probable future colored too darkly by my aged perspective?

However, this parable has a deeper meaning. The fruit that comes from the flower is poisonous to humans.

Does living in the present and enjoying the beauty of the moment, the fleeting instant of the now, leave you blind to its poisonous fruits?

[1] Kigelia Africana is also know as the sausage tree. The sausage tree boasts long, open sprays of large, wrinkled, maroon or dark red trumpet-shaped flowers that are velvety on the inside and that virtually overflow with nectar. The unique fruits look like giant sausages!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Gardens of Democracy

This little book is a "must read" for every thinking citizen of America. It offers some fresh thoughts about the issues we face and potential solutions. In actuality, it is neither liberal nor conservative, but a third position, a new progressive based on the newer sciences, especially complexity. The central paradigm shift described in this book is from "machine brain" to "garden brain".

“The failure of American politics to address and solve the great challenges of our time-climate change, debt and deficits, worsening schools, rising health care costs, the shriveling of the middle class-is not just a failure of will or nerve. It is equally a failure of ideas and understanding. And the failure to address these challenges isn't just a matter of politics, but of survival.

To begin with, we labor today under a painfully confining choice between outmoded ideologies on both the left and the right. On the left, too many remain wedded to paradigms first formed during the decades between the Progressive Era and the New Deal. They are top-down, prescriptive, bureaucratic notions about how to address social challenges. These state-centric approaches made sense in a centralizing, industrializing America. They make much less sense in the networked economy and polity of today.

On the right, we hear ideas even more historically irrelevant: laissez-faire economics and a "don't tread on me" idea of citizenship that might have been tolerable in 1775 when the country had 3 million largely agrarian inhabit-ants, only some of whom could vote, but is at best naive and at worst destructive in a diverse, interdependent, largely urban nation of over 300 million.

Our politics has become an over-rehearsed, over-ritualized piece of stage combat between these two old ideologies. False choice after polarizing false choice emanates from Washington. Both ideologies-indeed, the surrender of American politics to ideology itself, and the abandonment of pragmatism as a guiding political philosophy- make it harder by the day for America to adapt.

We wrote this short book to offer a new way. We aim to reach not "moderates" or "centrists" who split the difference between left and right. We aim to reach those who think independently. That might mean those who claim no party affiliation, though it also includes many loyal Democrats and Republicans. It definitely means those who are uncomfortable being confined by narrow choices, old paradigms, and zero-sum outcomes.

If you can hold these paired thoughts in your head, we wrote this book for you:

• The federal government spends too much money. The wealthy should pay much more in taxes.

• Every American should have access to high-quality health care. We spend far too much on health care in the United States already.

 • We need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to ensure our economy continues to grow.

 • Unions are a crucially important part of our economy and society. Unions have become overly protectionist and are in need of enormous amounts of reform.

 • We need strong government. We need strong citizens.

Contemporary American political discourse sees these pairings as either-or. Independent-thinking Americans see them as both-and. Our goal in these pages is to push past the one-dimensional, left-right choices of contemporary politics-between more government or less, selfishness and altruism, suffocating collectivism and market fundamentalism-and find orthogonal approaches to our challenges. The great challenge of this age-and the point of this book-is to rethink how we as citizens create change, how the economy truly works, and what government fundamentally is for. The great challenge of this age is to change how we see, and by so doing, improve our ability to adapt.”

 I don’t personally think that the metaphors of machinebrain and gardenbrain as all that useful, and may be confusing, if it helps people to understand the concepts, then OK.

 “This is not just about economics or politics; it's about imagination and our ability to conceive of new ways of conceiving of things. It is about our ability to adapt and evolve in the face of changing circumstances and the consequences of our actions. History shows that civilizations tend eventually to get stuck in the patterns that had brought them success. They can either stay stuck and decay, or get unstuck and thrive.

We posit in these pages that this country has for too long been stuck in a mode of seeing and thinking called Machinebrain. We argue that the time has come for a new mode of public imagination that we call Gardenbrain.

Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presupposes stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction-"regulation"-is mechanical in origin and regrettable in connotation.

Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well constructed and well cared-for.

 Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumers to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of a dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

 Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.

Gardenbrain changes everything.”

The authors write:

“We acknowledge that we could have written separate books on these three topics: citizenship, economy, role of government. But our aim was precisely to show that these things are connected-not least by a need for new thinking and new seeing. In making our book short, we know that we trade detail for perspective. We simply believe this is a time when perspective matters most.

Thus we close the book by trying to put into historical context the need for America now to grow up-and the need for us to understand freedom not only as personal liberty but also as the collective force that fuels adaption and survival. Our extraordinary experiment in democracy and capitalism is over 230 years old. We Americans are not children anymore. Indeed, some think that the nation is in rapid decline. We completely disagree. We think of America as an adolescent or young adult coming into our prime, full of promise, energy, and enthusiasm for the challenges of our times-but in need of maturation of thought, habit, and awareness. The words enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial, written 40 years after the Declaration and 43 years before Darwin authored Origin if Species, capture this spirit perfectly:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Later, they write:

“Our century is yielding a second Enlightenment, and the narrative it offers about what makes us tick, individually and collectively, is infinitely more sophisticated than what we got the last time around. Since the mid -1960s, there have been profound advances in how we understand the systemic nature of botany, biology, physics, computer science, neuroscience, oceanography, atmospheric science, cognitive science, zoology, psychology, epidemiology, and even, yes, economics. Across these fields, a set of conceptual shifts is underway:

Simple → Complex

Atomistic → Networked

Equilibrium → Disequilibrium

Linear → Non-linear

Mechanistic → Behavioral

Efficient → Effective

Predictive → Adaptive

Independent →Interdependent

Individual ability → Group diversity

Rational calculator → Irrational approximators

Selfish → Strongly reciprocal

Win-lose → Win-win or lose-lose

Competition → Cooperation

These shifts, of course, are not as clean or simple as they may appear in such a list. We acknowledge that there are volumes of nuance condensed here. But at a macro level, these shifts are real, consequential, and too often unseen.”

In my opinion, most of these shifts are encompassed by complexity science, game theory and evolution.

A summary of the concepts developed in this book are:

• Self interest: true self interest is mutual interest

• Great citizenship: society becomes how you behave

• True capitalism: we're all better off when we're all better off

• Self government: big what, small how  

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2011, 173p

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Connected but Alone

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication -- and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.

Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships: with others, with ourselves, with it.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Be Wary of Polling Now

Be wary of polling in this environment. "In our NBC-Marist poll of Florida, Romney leads with landline respondents, 48%-45%. But Obama leads among cell phone respondents, 57%-34%. And in Virginia, Romney’s up one among landline folks, 47%-46%, while Obama is up 54%-36% with cell users."

And this is just one variable. In addition, there's an overall issue with statistical polling in this environment. It's based on a model that assumes that there are no connections between those being polled. With the Internet and the 24 hr, 7 day cable news, the population is too volatile. And, it doesn't account for emergent behavior.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

November 22, 1963

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all. Don’t we secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

Steven King

November 22, 1963