Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

Convergence and Innovation Inhibitors: 011110

As we start the second decade of the new millennium, innovation is understood as a critical driver to overcome the economic malaise plaguing the global economy. Economic stasis and political factionalism has made it increasingly evident that faltering economic and social institutions cry out for sweeping reform. These reforms can only be achieved with innovative approaches in policy and practice. Innovation is realized by giving flight to uninhibited thought and the clear application of ideas with decisive action. Though most agree that we badly need reform, we remain at painful odds as to what those reforms should be and how to implement them. The destructive legislative debates on health care and the ugly political theater of town meetings that occurred in the United States over the summer accomplished little in regards to meaningful reform. The exercises  only served to drive a deepening wedge into the ability of a democratic culture to form a transformative consensus.

Our society is a complex ecosystem comprised of many competing interests. The classic definition of politics, “the means to decide how limited resources are allocated to disparate interests” is clearly a truism that must be applied if we are to realize the reform that we desperately need. In a post scarcity society that definition may seem a bit crude or antiquated. America’s history is marked by a culture of innovation and the incubation of industry. Innovation and its commercial expression in entrepreneurialism is a national asset that tempers the hard edges of stringent allocation or resources and has been the source of our great social wealth. Democracies continually require citizens to arbitrate how competing interests are reconciled and converge. As a self professed democracy the United States must break down the barriers that inhibit innovation by confronting the challenges posed by convergence.

Convergence has been the watch word in the tech industry for the past few years. Convergence aggregates, joins and aligns discreet trends, competencies, technologies and missions to spawn innovation and progress. Masters of business innovation understand that a precondition of convergence is the ability to collaborate. Collaboration requires extended conversations and dialog to understand how competing interests can be reconciled and brought together so that innovation and progress can be achieved. Marketeers invent neologisms like coopetition to brand the idea and lend heft to its thrust. We believe that innovation borne from convergence is the path to rebuild our economy, heal cultural wounds and take a step toward political maturity the United States needs to sustain the great experiment of our democratic republic.

With that in mind we offer a list that outlines the inhibitors to innovation. It is hoped that our nations leaders and people can begin an earnest conversation to address these barriers to growth. Maybe I’m wrong with offering this modest list but I remain willing to discuss it, hopeful that people of good will with a different viewpoint will be open to correct my thinking and contribute to my enlightenment.

1. War: War is inherently wasteful. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are grievous examples of waste and national distraction that hampers the United States economic recovery. At an  Ecumenical Memorial Service held at Yankee Stadium following the 9/11 terror attacks  a Buddhist Monk stated that  he believed “it was wiser to drop refrigerators on Afghanistan then bombs”.  Almost a decade later and two wars on I can’t help but to think what a meager $100 billion investment in Afghanistan would have returned to the United States tax payers.  More importantly it would have shown the world that above all else America values the sanctity and preservation of life.  It would have also minimized the rising toll of casualties of both citizens and soldiers.   We developed some great bunker buster bombs but we can’t figure out a way to stop a suicide bomber with exploding underpants.  We succeeded in stirring up a hornets nest of angry insurgents and failed to build innovative pathways to peace with steadfast bridges to secure allies and pacify combatants.

2. Politics: To be sure politics is omnipresent  but the politicization of faith institutions and government functions is a great separator of people. When politics infects faith institutions their ability to breach the social divide and  join people together is seriously compromised or downright destructive. The Catholic Church’s practice of denying the Eucharist to parishioners based on political biases of the communicant places politics at the center of the Lords alter.  The recent occurrences of  radical Islamists burning down Christian Churches in Malaysia  is tragically ironic.  The violence, a response to the Christians appropriation of the word Allah as a name for God; is  a violent rejection of  language convergence of two great faith traditions.  It would seem that unity is a  threat that God cannot abide and is a growing threat that must be abolished.  In the secular world government agencies  were instructed to withhold scientific climate change research of the National Science Foundation because it did not conform with the politics of the party in power.  The extent of the politicization of the judicial branch of government under the Bush Administration was a seditious move worthy of dictatorships.  Innovative application of constitutional law in defense of civil liberties is one of the greatest challenges the war on terror poses to this country.  The creation of kangaroo courts to support the politics of the ruling party would undermine our system of justice.  It would  transform our judiciary  into a repressive apparatus of the state, our laws into  stale dogmas ill suited to meet the legal challenges  of our time and a  justice system that is indistinguishable from the justice offered by our opponents.

3. Ideology: Only good ideas need apply. Deng Xiaoping said it best “does it matter if its a communist or capitalist mouse trap. The question is, does it catch mice?” Seeing this as a threat, Mao Zedong unleashed the cultural revolution and routed the capitalist roaders as a threat to the Great Proletarian Revolution. After the death of Mao, Deng would be rehabilitated and play a key role in China’s adoption of a market economy and its current ascendancy as a world economic power.  In my mind there is a striking resemblance to the debate about heath care.  Socialized medicine is bad.  Do you want to turn into France?  Canadian health care is too expensive.  UK heath care system is overloaded and can’t cope with demand.   These problems would be solved however after the death panels had a chance to meet  and decide who shall live and who must walk the plank.

4. Entrenched Commercial Interests: Though we are ardent believers in capitalism as an engine of innovation the dictatorship of ROI, entrenched concentrations of capital and an unwillingness or inability to adopt longer term investment horizons hamper innovation. The failure of the United States automobile industry to develop fuel efficient vehicles is a good example of market intransigence. The development of junk bonds by Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert dismantled the manufacturing base of the US economy accelerated the countries decline as a net exporter of products creating the foundation of a debtor nation. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House. The succeeding administration had them removed. Imagine where the alternative energy industry would be today had it developed this leading edge idea and capitalized on this first mover advantage.

5. Unbridled free markets: The economic carnage of the banking meltdown is a startling example of the excesses the pursuit of profit will create. The boom in commercial and residential real estate construction created massive stocks of unused inventories that misdirected and wasted enormous resource. The energy and capital expended on these wasteful endeavors misdirected funds and created huge social hazards that requires massive amounts of capital to mitigate. Also worth mention is the development of video gaming. Lots of energy and creativity is being expended on the best techno music to use while your Mafia Avatar bashes open the head of your opponent with a baseball bat. We are not suggesting censorship or a prohibition of video games nor centralized economic planning. Its a compensation and social value issue.  Perhaps a communicants denial of participation at the Lord’s Table lead them to leave the church and miss the message about social values.

6. Technology: It may seem odd to include technology as an inhibitor to innovation but technology for technology sake may inhibit the development of innovative applications solutions that are not technological in nature. The technorati of the world is transforming technology into a religion. Deprived of its human dimension it can become a dogma that grows in an antagonistic relationship with its human masters. The United States continues to trumpet its technological prowess as the deciding factors in its war in Afghanistan. But that paradigm was explored during the war in Viet Nam where pungi sticks ultimately trumped napalm bombs. The power of an idea and how it connects and motivates people is force that is mightier then the sword.

7. Fundamentalism: The Pharisees once asked Jesus, “is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” Jesus answered that it was always the right time to heal those who are sick. The world recoils in horror at the capacity for destruction fundamentalism regularly visits upon the world. The denial of equal civil rights to LGBT people creates a  bifurcated system of citizenship.  It is an ugly stain on our democratic heritage.  The gravest peril to democracy is the abridgment and denial of civil rights to any group of citizens. Democracy necessitates that all republicans enjoy equal access and rights in order for it to function. The denial of that right based on a fundamentalist reading of religious scriptures makes it particularly abhorrent because civil rights of citizens in a secular democracy is not an issue that is decided by theologians or the adherents to a particular theology.

Tolerance and consensus are both antithetical to the precepts of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion. It has its secular and ideological adherents as well. Fundamentalism is a pillar of dictatorship; either of a political or theocratic nature both are enemies of secular democracy. Secular democracies require tolerance to respect the diverse ideas and competing viewpoints require in the democratic process. Secular democracies require the trust to converse and hash out the best ideas that serve the greatest good. This is only possible if consensus can be achieved. It is how “out of many becomes one”. It is the true genius of America. It is a worthy innovation of governance that every freedom loving citizen should jealously guard and consciously pursue.

8.  Public Education:  The public education system that the United States built is the true arsenal of democracy and the nations source of wealth and its many contributions it has made to the world.  Without the vast network of learning institutions built and supported by successive generations of Americans the worlds great experiment in representative democracy would have long ago perished.   The public schools sole charter is to create an enlightened citizenship with the skills to discuss, discern and decide in a civil and constructive manner the ever evolving dialectic of a democratic consensus placed at the service of the republic.  It is one of the true geniuses of America and remains her enduring strength.

Today public schools are under attack by forces whose agendas are the pursuit of parochial goals that first and foremost seek their enrichment and interests at the expense of the greatest good of the republic.  The charter school movement is a trend that threatens the public school system by privatizing some of the systems assets and draining away much needed resource and financial support.  It forces public schools to dispense with curriculum offerings like music and arts, sports programs and civic excursions that will convey an understanding of how institutions  interact and support the greater social good. This aspect of the educational experience is supplanted by an exacting examination regime that destroys the love of learning.  Secular learning is also being threatened through the introduction of theological precepts like creationism into the science curriculum of public schools.  Religion and faith are important precepts to offer in a public educational curriculum;  however theology that masquerades  as   science  is an ideological stricture that has no place in public schools.    These  trends are pose great challenges to the  public  schools mission to form enlightened citizens free to think and free to act in the sole service of liberty and participatory democracy.  Innovation and progress is in danger of becoming a secular sin a disease of the soul that needs to be eradicated from the public schools as its threatens to infect the greater body politic.

You Tube Music Video:  Louis Armstrong, I Get Ideas

Risk: innovation, convergence, progress, tolerance

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January 11, 2010 Posted by | 9/11, business, Carter, China, Christianity, culture, democracy, economics, faith, history, institutional, manufacturing, Muslim, politics, real estate, recession, regulatory, sustainability, terrorism, war | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Riding The Acela Express

I don’t really know what Acela means.

I imagined it to be a Greek or Latin word perhaps the name of a divine conveyance or swift footed messenger from Roman mythology. It’s probably nothing that deep. Most likely it is one of those made up words invented by a high powered marketing firm on Madison Avenue. Most know it as the rebranding of Amtrak. A kind of corporate rechristening available only to the well capitalized and those blessed with fat marketing budgets. They had to do it. After the supply-sider victory of the Reagan Revolution the legacy of losses and unending government subsidies to the failing railroad industries had to be purged from the new American political lexicon. It’s kind of like when Khrushchev was removed from power in the USSR. History books had to be rewritten to exclude the memory of Khruschev’s glorious contributions to building a workers’ paradise with Stalinist absolutism.

Riding the Acela Express from Newark New Jersey to our nation’s capitol in Washington DC provides a front seat view of a sad and sobering survey of our quickly evaporating manufacturing base and our country’s diminished industrial strength.

Riding the Acela Express down the spine of our county’s once formidable east coast industrial corridor presents a sad irony. The former Soviet Union unintentionally destroyed its economy due to its inefficient deployment and allocation of capital. While the United States, the USSR’s great historical antagonist and seeming victor of the cold war, destroyed it’s manufacturing base through the carefully considered rationalization of our industries by reallocating capital to foreign markets in search of superior returns.

In practice, this meant closing old inefficient factories and moving them overseas. From an economic standpoint it makes perfect sense. Capital seeks its best return. If that return can be found in an overseas market where labor costs are lower, tax rates are more favorable and regulatory oversight is non-existent the shareholders of the firm that closed the doors on US workers will realize a better return on their equity investment. That’s how capital markets work. Michael Milken and other predators would have a ball and build many fortunes instructing corporate America on the finer points of financial alchemy and demonstrate how easy it was to spin gold from the junk of old rust belt industries.

At first it kind of made sense. We didn’t want those kinds of jobs anyway. They were dirty and caused pollution in our communities. These types of businesses were highly unionized and susceptible to industrial disputes that only antagonized the uneasy relationship between labor and capital. Many of these industries were too capital intensive and the investment needed to maintain world class competitiveness was just too high to see any kind of acceptable return within the required time frames that benefited management and shareholders. The US was moving to a service oriented economy that obviated the need to manufacture anything. We would be an economy of designers, merchants, consultants, marketers and bankers. We did retain some clean, high tech, lite and lean factories that would rely on assembling machines from various components sourced just in time from overseas manufacturers. That was the industrial and economic vision of post cold war America.

But the vision outside my window on this Sunday morning Acela Express ride looks very different. They say that Georgian’s know their home when they see the red clay soil of their beloved state. As I pass through the metro areas of Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore I see miles and miles of half demolished factories whose crushed emulsified bricks have turned the earth of these abandoned industrial brownfield to blazing acres of red ochre.

The landscape offers a view of row after row of empty disassembled and decaying factories. They litter the landscape like forgotten industrial sarcophagi that was long ago broken into and pillaged, its contents whisked away by savvy tomb raiders.

The abandoned shipping docks whose bills of lading long since posted last orders that disembarked decades ago. Old forges, not fired since our Great War now stand as furtive tombstones to a productive past. These committed sentinels still stand post, watching over rusted rails that once creaked under the weight of bulging freight cars delivering goods to defend the arsenal of democracy. Now the rail yards serve no purpose other then rusted planter boxes for some invasive plant species. Closed beer gardens stand next to empty Union Halls whose cheap tin signage proclaims solidarity from a bygone day. You can still barely make out the union local number if you catch the right light from this mornings emerging sun. And the church steeples and factory smokestacks both covered in many layers of hard earned coats of gray soot stand in each others holy presence reminding us of the solemn Shaker proverb, “hands to work hearts to God.”

Last we witness the awful toll the dismantling of our industrial base has claimed on our urban communities. We pass archaic schools that rise like Gothic anachronisms, resembling prisons not Lyceums of learning. We see the tiny wooden row houses of Philadelphia and Baltimore and wonder how the inhabitants will sleep through a night where temperatures will remain uncomfortably hot. Nature and capital both abhor a vacuum. In the absence of legal industry and commerce such areas will become incubators for the growth of black-markets whose social cost and commercial thrust poses great risk to the heath and efficiency of free markets and the personal liberties of free people.

The USSR failed miserably in its attempt to build a workers state. Centralized bureaucratic planning, totalitarian political control, and the parasitic drain of capital by a class of ruthless self serving party elites strangled all entrepreneurial initiative and any hope for an efficient economic system. The possibility for workers to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors vanished as nothing more then an idealistic dream.

The current state of our manufactures and how we got there may turn out to be one of those funny ironies of history. What the Soviets did to their economy by accident and incompetence, we did to ourselves through intention. The industrial policies and practices we have pursued have strengthened the economies and industrial capacities of Russia and China. Both countries economies are experiencing robust growth. Russia due to its extensive oil and natural gas reserves is once again an emerging superpower that the United States must consider in its global political, economic and military strategies. China due to its rapid development of its manufacturing capacity now boasts tremendous balance of trade surpluses. China’s exports far more then it imports and it puts its surplus into its massive Sovereign Wealth Fund. This SWF is an investment vehicle that loans money to the large US banks to bolster their fragile balance sheets so we can get through this dangerous and debilitating credit crisis. The tables have dramatically turned.

The Acela Express. What a window it provides on the state of the American economy. After an exhaustive search I discovered a reference to Acela. In a far eastern language it refers to “a cloth less one.” Or in other words naked, as in the emperor has no cloths or perhaps we are vulnerable and exposed as a naked child in a blizzard without a strong industrial and manufacturing base? Or as in the “clothless one” hides nothing and always presents the naked truth. However you interpret Acela, let us hope that the Midnight Special continues to shine an ever loving light on you.

Music: Lonnie Donagen, Midnight Special

Risk: capital flight, manufacturing, labor unions, urban communities, political, global competitiveness, balance of trade, railroads,

June 14, 2008 Posted by | China, culture, folk, manufacturing, sovereign wealth funds, unions | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment