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When Will The 21st Century Start?

This is the post excerpt.

It’s been a politically hot summer: Russians, Failed Healthcare Reform, Scandals, Conflicts of Interest, Lies, Nazis, Tiki Torches, Antifa, Marches, Civil War Statues, and the “cherry” on our “chaos sundae”: Hurricane Harvey, a heartbreak of an incredible magnitude.  Whew!  We need a vacation from our vacation!

As I watch the news, an odd sensation comes over me.  As if the same film reel has been running for 60 years: same issues, the same faux outrage, finger-pointing rhetoric, and the same politics line-up around the thread-bare themes of the 20th Century.  The projector stops and the film burns through…fade to white and one question appears: When will the 21st Century start?!

In the US our politics has become outdated and unable to fully face the challenges of the 21st Century.  You can see it in the rhetoric from our 70 year old politicians: a confusion, a retreat, a turning away from a daunting future, a childish wish for a past where things were easy and simple.  Well guess what, the 21st Century is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be simple.  Instead of our leaders leveling with us, all we hear are the hollow promises of post-WWII America.

So here it is.  We are facing one of the biggest societal upheavals since the industrial revolution, but this revolution is not fought on Karl Marx’s 20th Century terms (labor vs capital), this revolution is being “fought” by Tech (digitization, automation, AI, Industry 4.0, et al.) which is “at war” with Human Labor itself.  Everyone from Accountants, Financial Planners, Lawyers, and Doctors to Truck Drivers, IT Technicians, Cashiers, and Bank Tellers is in the crosshairs of Tech.  Some experts predict that 50% of jobs will be gone by 2025.

Work: the thing that defines us, gives us dignity and purpose, the reason for the miracle of our Middle Class, the basis of our tax system.  What are the implications of a world where human labor is devalued to zero?  And what our are backward-facing politicians doing to prepare us for this revolution?  The answer is…nothing; they are doing nothing to prepare and unite us for this fight.  They are too busy fighting the trite culture wars of the 1960’s because our system incentivizes them to do so.  If that weren’t bad enough, they are simply out of ideas.  The politics of distraction pays, it keeps us triggered, in fear of our neighbor, and (most importantly) it keeps us watching the TV through the Life Alert commercials; meanwhile Rome burns.

But wait…it’s not all gloom and doom.  We are in a 10 year “twilight” of human labor where, if you have marketable skills and are mobile, you will survive and maybe thrive.  However, for those left behind there is only more confusion, angst, division, scapegoating, and a susceptibility to demagoguery.

Forget about blame and fault (there’s too much to go around).  No political party can claim “clean hands” from pedaling the politics of distraction.  Instead, let’s imagine a solution, a clean slate, a new party.  A party that faces the 21st Century head-on!  What would such a party look like?  The Politics of the 21st Century must:

1. Fully enter, occupy, and engage the 21st Century.  No more hiding, no more distraction.

2. Embrace fact-based decision making (empirical evidence, peer reviewed works, and the reliance on experts).  Seeing “strikes” instead of “balls” when it suits your team is the greatest from of distraction.

3. Discard outdated notions of Left and Right in order to focus on solving our biggest and most pressing problems.  Marxian terms like “labor” and “means of production” hold no meaning in a future where AI owns your mortgage.

4. Address the digitization & automation revolution and its effects on the value of human labor.  I’m open for suggestions, but we need to get ahead of this, 80,000 Class A truck driver jobs are at risk (for example).  Additionally, because automation replaces a tax payer, who will fill that tax-void for our police, schools, and roads?

5. Long term strategic thinking: Investments in people, infrastructure, employment, and businesses.  Short term thinking has lead to wasteful spending and our nation’s atrophy.

6. Unity over digital tribalism: Coalition-building across many diverse and disparate groups.  Identity politics is dead.  This fight requires us to work together!

7. Detente on the Culture Wars of the 20th Century: abortion, gun rights, identity politics, etc.  These issues have never created a job or educated a kid.  Enough is enough.

8. Restore western democratic norms and institutions: the rule of law, separation of powers, anti-corruption, and the sanctity of the vote.  I can’t stress this enough.  Democracy is the worst form of government…except all others.

9. The protection of shared natural resources and the human biosphere.  98% of the world’s climate scientists agree, climate change is real.  One way or another, we’ll pay for climate change.  Let’s talk about it like adults.

I’m sure there are many more ways we need to restructure our politics to face the 21st Century, let’s open our minds to the discussion and move forward together. The future is here and time waits for no one.

If You Want To Save Capitalism, Know Its Limitations

Here in the US in 2017, two interesting notions are emerging in parallel that will determine the fate of capitalism: 1) An almost religious faith in its ability to solve all problems at all times (usually held by people on the right who have forgiven capitalism for its shortcomings in the light of the alternative: Soviet-style communism), and 2) A complete collapse in faith by people who are witnessing how modern capitalism is becoming an exclusive club that favors passive wealth over labor (usually held by people on left who equate all capitalism as corruption, or young people who came of age during the Great Recession).  According to Fast Company magazine, “51% of young people in the United States no longer support the system of capitalism. And a solid 55% of Americans of all ages believe that capitalism is fundamentally unfair.”  By stating capitalism can do everything or it can do nothing, both of these movements are hurting a system that has raised more people out of poverty than any other philosophy or economic system.  In short, capitalism is sick and besieged on both sides.  If we want to cure this “sick man” of the 21st century, we’ll have to get real about what it can reasonably do…and what it cannot.

Let’s start in the beginning, I am a capitalist, but I’m also an eyes-wide-open realist. Being both a capitalist and a realist, I would like to see capitalism saved it from its own blind spots.  If you’ve read my other blog posts you’ll notice I’m partial to making lists, an old military habit I suppose…so here’s another short list to illustrate capitalism’s blind spots:

1) Unbridled capitalism doesn’t do well thinking long term or strategically.  One only has to look to the boom-bust cycles of the 19th century, our quarterly earnings report mindset, or our current aversion to reinvest in our infrastructure and people.  In the microeconomic view, I’ve been in food processing facilities where the leadership made an intentional choice to ignore food safety in order to gain efficiency; with disastrous results.  Another example is healthcare.  There is no profit motive in providing healthcare for poor or sick people, yet there are massive strategic economic benefits to ensuring healthcare for all (lower costs, less bankruptcies, more mobility, and greater risk taking by small business owners).

2) It has no mechanism for assessing the prices of shared resources.  For example imagine a company that makes its money by ruining the biosphere (air, water, etc) without properly paying for the long term damage. Back before we took these issues seriously, health hazards like smog, rivers on fire, and lead in water plagued our health and environment.  This is a topic both sides agreed upon back in the 1990’s when we almost passed “cap-and-trade” which would have assigned a price to carbon emissions but also allowed for trading with those who reduced carbon. 

3) A true free market demands perfect information for all players to properly price goods and services, but it is often co-opted by the powerful players in the market who collude to fix prices or obscure prices from the less powerful players.  This is pretty obvious to anyone who has only slightly studied the stock market…by the time the news hits you, it’s too late, the fatcats got out and you’re stuck.  For a recent example, look to the Equifax security breach where top executives aledgdly sold stock before the news of the breach hit “the street.”

4) Even for those who have a religious belief in capitalism, they/we already agree on limits to the free market (based on both our experience and common sense). We have child labor laws even though the free market wants the cheapest labor. We have borders that stop cheap labor from seeking market needs. See also, bank regulations, Americans with Disabilities Act, public schools, roads, FDA, SEC, etc.  Most of all, for $600b per year (more than the other top 10 countries combined) we demand that the government, not the free market, provide our common defense (schooling, healthcare, and housing for military families are all paid for by the tax payers).  Common defense is a puzzle that capitalism has yet to crack.

The very best example I can give you is coal. Coal is a 18th century technology that has become so efficient that barely anyone still works in coal, yet the industry still has a huge sway on politicians to protect it when it pollutes or to help it stifle cleaner, more innovative energy technologies. This example proves the point, short term thinking, exploiting shared resources, and a lobby that protects itself from competition…the very worst of all worlds.

I think you get the point, capitalism has some huge blind spots, so enough bashing on capitalism.  We also know that capitalism has great potential for saving and improving lives through innovation.  I happen to think that market-driven innovation may be the only way out for pressing issues like climate change and jobs lost to automation, but the incentives need to be right…and here’s where government still has a role to play. 

So what’s the answer?  Socialism?  No, the answer is balance. Our grandparents knew this.  After experiencing hunger and poverty during the Great Depression and witnessing the horrors WWII, they purposefully built a system where hard work was rewarded, old folks didn’t die from hunger, and children were sent to school instead of the mines or the fields.  Even though they are gone, we need to renew their vow to a balanced approach where we can unleash the power of capitalism where it works and restrict/exclude it where it only works for the very few or threatens our children’s future.  Once it wasn’t controversial or political that we demand our government to be strategic, people focused, free from corruption, and balanced.  It can be that way again if both sides agree to balance. Because without balance, there will only be imbalance and capitalism will only get sicker.  We must move forward, together. 

Why Trump Doesn’t Know Americans

WatercraftPresident Trump loves his rallies.  His rallies are the time when “real” Americans reaffirm his presidency and position at summit of all US politics.  However, outside of these events, Trump has shown a complete misunderstanding of who we Americans truly are.  In a recent instance he was forced to play the role of “consoler-in-chief” for victims of the hurricane Harvey floods in Houston TX.  In his ill-fitting un-scuffed work boots, his goofy “Made in China” MAGA hat, and tailored suit, Trump was simply at a loss for what to say to people who had lost everything.  It’s almost as if he couldn’t conceive a world where so many of us are one illness, injury, or natural disaster away from being homeless.  Instead he commented on the size of the crowds that came out to see him; a standard applause line at his rallies.  He missed the moment and he missed us.  The question is Why?  Why is it so awkward for Trump to interact with us?  In short, why does Trump not know us?

To answer the question one need not explore the dark corners of Trump’s psyche.  One must simply look to his experiences, worldview, and a lifetime of avoiding Americans.  There are two main reasons for his lack of understanding: 1) because he has rarely ventured out of his opulent NYC bubble to meet us, he is simply ignorant of the American experience, and 2) he see his core angst (a nouveau riche Queens kid rejected from “proper” Manhattan society) as a quintessential American experience…it is not.

First his ignorance of what it means to be an American.  Here’s a short list of instances illustrating Trump’s misguided view of American life:

  1. He doesn’t know what we do for a living.  Here his preference for two types of “manly” jobs is telling; seemingly only Coal Miners and Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund Managers exist in Trump’s world.  He doesn’t know that more people work in renewable energy than coal, or at Arby’s.
  2. He’s never been laid-off or fired.  Utilizing tax and bankruptcy loopholes doesn’t come anywhere close to the sting of having to pay COBRA, or being uninsured, or having to rely on food stamps.
  3. He doesn’t know how much a gallon of gas or milk costs.  I don’t know this for a fact, I only know it’s true.
  4. He’s never taken out a student loan.  See his Trump University scam.
  5. He’s never attended a public school.
  6. He “feels” like he was in the military because he attended a posh military school, but he received a draft deferment for “bone spurs.”  As a veteran, I find this “feeling” to be the least forgivable part of Trump’s ignorance of the American People.
  7. And on, and on…

The second reason he doesn’t know us is a little more complex: He has a misplaced sympathy for the forgotten American working class.  At Trump’s core is a burning rage against the established Manhattan old moneyed elites.  This is why his strident tone hits home for many of us who have been left behind by globalization and automation, but it’s an amazing coincidence of aligning attitudes…not understanding, empathy, or a plan.  Most of his supporters don’t know of his intense desire for inclusion and ultimate rejection by New York’s elites, or that his tone alone will never produce policies to get the forgotten workers of Rustbelt back to work, but they are waking to that reality.

With all that he doesn’t know, Trump has made one final miscalculation out of ignorance.  Even though we can be politically polarized, Americans are polite, charitable, and neighborly.  Especially in small communities (like where I live) where his brand of bravado and failure to pay contractors would get you run out of town on a rail.  We watch out for each other, because we know what it’s like to be down on your luck in the US in the 21st Century.  He has underestimated our unity, and it may be his own undoing.

Trump may not know us, but he is going to meet us soon enough.