Saturday, March 29, 2008

I like Forbes - but why do they like me?

I am unembarrassed about monetizing my site. I'm not the sort of person that thinks that good hard work should go unrewarded in order for it to be seen to be good. The thing about advertising of this sort is that it doesn't pay off at all if you don't have something worth reading. Well, that's the theory anyhow.

Nonetheless, I'm writing this to confess that I'm as surprised as you probably are. I signed up on a lark, thinking it was about as likely as being accepted by Pajamas Media.

In this article I aim to speculate about the reasons. I assume that Forbes pays a lot of mind to alternate voices and employs people at least as smart as I am. While it's editorial bias is toward a conservative sort of complacency, I don't think they are entirely capable of blinding themselves to the obvious - that a major shift in the entire economic structure and indeed, the very basis of wealth is inevitable, probably sooner than any of us will be entirely comfortable with.

Forbes is definitely on my list of reliable sources; on the rare occasions that I want a solid, conservative business viewpoint. However, as an ethics blogger, they are primarily useful to me as an example of the power of positively not thinking about ethics.

It's kind of amusing, to see how very correct Jesus was about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle. I'm in no position to criticize, by the way, my life has included some embarrassingly pointed lessons regarding the peril of thinking within the box you think you have earned the right to think within.

Perhaps that's why my blog passed the vetting process. Advertising is a form of validation, especially as it's directly linked to the name. I can't imagine how else it could have, I rarely write about Business and Finance directly, unless it's something of a Jerimiad. But the more I write about ethics, the more I realize how very profitable - and I mean that quite literally - it is to practice ethics religiously. Ethics, really, is no more and no less than the art of making correct decisions.

Indeed, as I look back, I can think of several times that if I had been more skilled in explaining what I knew to be true - well, my boss would have been a very wealthy man, and I would have been quite comfortably supported by a tidy nest-egg and a paid-off earth ship.

You see, - and sometimes it seems silly and futile to insist on this point - I am a fiscal conservative. I'm also something of a social conservative, though I have little or nothing in common with Social Conservatives who wish to engineer society to make there socio-religious preferences compulsory. What my conservatism amounts to is a reflexive dislike of sudden, unpredictable change, to the extent that I've spent a great deal of my life learning how to anticipate it so that I could be conveniently elsewhere.

Mostly, though, I'm a Libertarian in all senses; I believe that ultimately government should serve individuals, not groups, not corporations, not pressure groups and certainly, especially, primarily - not it's own agendas.

All individuals. Even the filthy rich. Even the desperately poor. Even the hapless and apparently useless. Because, well, we are all networked, all of us are five degrees from everyone else - and with the relationship between persons being that close, it really is damned unwise to pretend you can isolate yourself from the consequences of heedless, inconsiderate action.

Worse yet - the consequences of unethical decision making tend to be diffuse and unpredictable in time and space. It's far, far more difficult to protect your interests from the blow-back of an unethical decision than to do the right thing in the first place.

Furthermore, though the blow-back is unpredictable in time, the general "progress curve," the rate of social and technological change we currently experience, tends to make all consequences more dire. The up-side is that ethical decision making will tend to reap far greater rewards far sooner than conventional wisdom would suggest. Still, it's an obvious idea, one that our nation was actually based on, the idea that the fundamental unit of society was the individual.

I'm a Constitutional conservative. Not in the Alito sense, but in the sense of someone who has a decent, if casual background in the writings of the founders and their intents - which was primarily the intent for the Government to secure the rights and liberties of individuals, in the belief that, aside from being intuitively right, ethical and morally proper, it was also the simplest way to ensure a minimax outcome - the most possible approaches to social, cultural and structural issues at the minimum global cost.

My view of the last thirty years - which has been a view from the bottom tier of the pyramid, or close to it most of that time - has been that the presumptions of the Regan Revolution have proved to be deeply and irredeemably flawed. For, if you strip away the rhetoric, it amounted to this, "Look good, smell good, talk a good line and put your conscience in your pocket." And we have allowed a government to grow up with those very same values - the idea that "money has no smell" and that the worth of a constituent is measured in their ability to generate campaign funds. Furthermore, we have abandoned ourselves to the tender mercies of centralized planners and social experimenters who are neither persons of good will or even of satisfactory qualification - were there any satisfactory qualification for such a thing.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, none of that is true. In Middle America, ethics still work and honor and one's good name matter - because if nothing else, if you cannot be trusted, there's someone else who can be. And if you are truly criminal - well, even if the law might shield you, it may come down to an axe-handle to the kneecap.

I mention that since an appeal to conscience is, obviously going to be met with a well-practiced defense. So let us consider instead the steel fist in the velvet glove, the probable alternative when justice is apparently evaded. That fist is called "consequence." This nation is set up for a perfect storm of consequence, so long as those who have the ability to use capital leverage to make some important changes fail to do so.

Now, here's where I part company from the average Liberal. I don't have anything against rich people. Making money is a damn useful skill. Even knowing how to use money effectively is a damn useful skill. The military refers to it as "logistics." I just object to it being seen as the only thing that matters - and I try to remember that when I think of my own pretty nifty skill-set.

Alas, that skill-set doesn't include the financial arts, and I'd love to have someone to take care of that for me. But frankly, it would be a complete waste of my time to try and play on that pitch. I'd be roadkill, and it wouldn't be any fun.

And damn, if it's worth doing, it ought to be fun.

But past a certain point, it becomes more than a bit silly, if not outright dangerous, if you are willing to set aside all principles, all common-sense rules, and every other consideration to pile up wealth for ... well, for what?

I still don't understand where the satisfaction is in creating messes like Enron or Tycho. We can shrug our shoulders, and say, well, obviously, they were sociopaths. Alas, this is very true. It was true, it was obviously true, and yet somehow, nobody did or said anything much, until the utterly predictable occurred.

Here's where I think the current wealth culture has missed the boat entirely. It's as if the idea of profit has been entirely divorced from the greater realm of society and the people that make it up. Far from being accusatory on that point, I'm apprehensive. For frankly, even the legitimate "winners" in this game are isolating themselves to the point of utter irrelevance to the vast majority of people in this nation, while setting themselves up as perfect marks for those who can and do exploit the gullible.

Let me underline that with an except from Forbes.

Top Suburbs To Live Well
Matt Woolsey, 03.26.08, 12:01 AM ET

By This Author
Matt Woolsey
What The New Lending Limits Mean For You
In Depth: Best Places To Buy Foreclosed Homes
More Headlines
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Piedmont, Calif., atop the Oakland Hills, boasts good schools, plenty of parks, and safe streets where the local kids gather and most of the police's attention goes to errant skateboarders.

I wonder if that's how ghettos were marketed back in Europe, to wealthy Jews who very much preferred to not be reminded that there were indeed surrounded by poor and hungry Gentiles that their religion - as it existed at the time - said they need not concern themselves with. Not, of course, that being concerned would have helped all that much - but that's not the point to this comparison.

Mostly, the lesson here is the temptation being presented you, the opportunity to freely associate with "like minded people" and thereby voluntarily consign yourselves to irrelevance and of course, a willful abandonment of any rational sense of self-preservation. Instead, you prefer to trust the noble and self-effacing good will of your shepherds. You have unwittingly become captive resource, one that's permitted to live in relative splendor so long as it doesn't interfere with the people who matter, those who see themselves as born deserving of the right to control everything they can. That control depends on you not noticing critical flaws in their policy and being persuaded that those flaws are the fault of those who bear the cost of those flawed policy. As long as you subscribe to such willful isolation, you will be permitted to believe that you do actually matter. Just so long as you don't.

You will be tolerated - just as I am - to the extent that you provide cover to those who do, a "peasantry to swim within." For myself, I'm permitted to exist to prove that it's still possible to criticize the powers that be and live. But of course, that doesn't make the criticism any less germaine. For myself, I'm willing to trade on the complacency of those who think venality, corruption and greed will triumph over good, honest dealings.

Your willingness to "get with the program" is enforced by the cultural perception that the rest of the country is plagued by crime and infested with evil criminals - the sort who wear sweat clothes and flash gang signs. Oh, and Islamist radicals.

Willy Sutton was once asked, "why do you rob banks?" "Because that's where the money is." he replied. Well, you are where the money is. But please note, it's not the Willy Suttons herding you into complacent little ghettos which emphasize the appearance of safety. Someone is aiming to make a pile off of you - and they fondly expect you to thank you for it.

How do I know that? The thing I do well is to put together seemingly unrelated things and see how they fit in a larger pattern. Sometimes it's almost obvious - as in the example above.

The cognitive dissonance of juxtaposing that article with links to the best places to buy foreclosed homes was left there because I never pass up a free clue-by-four. And because Willy Sutton and later free-lance communists were able to remain free and inconvenience the wealthy banks for years due to the fact that the poor had no particular reason to protect the banks - or the wealthy who's wealth depended on them.

Now, I have not the predictive facility to say for sure if we are headed for another Great Depression, but I'll give better than even odds that we are in for a Staggering Dislocation, and the last place I'd want to be is in a poorly-secured complacent ghetto where the appearance of law and order is valued over actual law. That makes you enemies you don't even KNOW about - like the New Orleans residents turned back into the floodwaters at gunpoint by sherriffs who knew that white trash and nigras had no place in their town.

In that whole event and that one example of starkly immoral actions by government, we should all wonder in who's interest it is for our government to be making policies that have the direct and predictable effect of shattering a once cohesive and reliable social matrix - the very thing that most folks who hark back to the values of the 40's and 50's are indeed thinking about.

If you were allowed to belong to the dominant culture at all - wealth and privileged mattered a great deal less than they do now, or perhaps more importantly, skill, ability and proven merit were valued more, and it was understood that when separated, neither mattered all that much, really.

Our nation invested in improving it's most valuable form of capital - it's citizenry, and that paid off staggeringly well. Mind-bogglingly, unbelievably, stunningly well.

But now it's devil take the hindmost, because nobody seems to want "their taxes" to go to the "undeserving," where "undeserving" is "not me, not mine, and not immediately." That is the sort of mean-spiritedness that makes a culture fly apart at the seams, into vicious fragments of violently competitive demographics. I don't choose to live in Somalia for a reason.

So, now that I've troubled your mind - I sincerely hope - what do I suggest? What courses of action show promise?

Well, first of all, I have a very practical suggestion. Take yourself and your kids on a cruise to someplace like Africa - or South-Central LA. Take some time, make some friends, make some connections, and figure out a way to invest money to do some good. Hell, as you need to train your kids to administer capital wisely and well, this is a perfect way to do it. In a place like Bangladesh , India, south America or any randomly chosen Indian reservation, there are people with amazing skills and no money to spread the word. A budget of five-hundred or a thousand dollars for your kids to invest will pay off in many delightfully unexpected ways.

So go shopping, and invest some money in bringing your scores to market. You do have excellent taste, right? An eye for value? The sense of who is a worker and who's a poseur?

You see, nobody has the right to ask you to change who and what you are, or the things that matter to you. Nobody has the right to compel you, via taxation or pressure beyond your own, unavoidable fair share of the load in keeping this great economic engine turning over for the good of us all. It's in your very immediate interest to make this society work - and to ease the path towards welcoming a future of global, free and fair trade between individuals. The alternate is a pile of worthless paper and a very uncertain future.

What I'm asking you to realize about yourself is that your wealth brings a skill-set that is far more important than you might realize. Just get out of your comfort zone, abandon both complacency and enui and find out where you are needed. Because, well, you are. Desperately. And there is no feeling like it.

Right now, there are incredible opportunities in green and appropriate technology, approaches that are often being developed in the third world, for lack of access to the expensive, energy-intensive solutions we are so fond of. What is needed is a transfer of expertise and skills. For instance, bio-digester technology is cheap in the third world because labor is cheap, and all these things are built by hand. There's no way we could afford a bio-digester built that way to deal with our organic waste disposal issues - but a little appropriate gee-whizmatroncs would change that. We are talking technology that with the right investments could be realized in five to ten years as practical answers to issues of climate change, the intersection of national security and energy resources and the sort of peace that a full stomach and a well-engaged mind brings people.

And there is going to be an absolute HEAP of money - great, steaming, obscenely deep piles of it - in providing clean water and energy to urban areas at affordable prices. Los Angeles and Las Vegas rise to the top of my mind, but really, every Southwestern state has this issue. Every single current approach is some variety of megaproject - and they won't work.

What is needed is not just an elegant solution, but entire portfolios of elegant solutions. Elegant solutions tend to be green by definition because green approaches waste as little as possible. When you think of it, waste heat, wasted water, wasted organics - all of this might as well be money flushed down the toilet.

Quite literally.

I'm old enough to remember the howls of outrage in my resource-based home-town when teepee burners were banned, as being both serious pollution sources and a not-insignificant fire risk to the resource base itself. Then someone got a brilliant idea, and the press-to fire log was born, as was pressboard. Suddenly, chips and sawdust were too valuable to waste, and the entire engineered wood industry was born. That happened pretty darned suddenly, too.

Well, that's the situation here and now. And I'm pretty much convinced that at this point corporate America is too invested in doing things the way they have always been done to change - at least, of their own internal will.

Corporations are ponderous things, and this is the sort of challenge that needs as many possible approaches as can be imagined, because, well, there is not going to be one universal ideal solution, no market that can be structured or dominated.

The web - and global demands in terms of dignity, human rights and a widespread resentment of damn incompetent exploitation have come together to present individuals worldwide to pretty much work around authoritarian constraints. Increasingly, the "legality" of the imposition of constraints on the free action of citizens is becoming moot, as government - domestically and more generally - has lost a great deal of respect for it's ability to do it's supposed job while becoming far to intent on interfering with our personal lives at the expense of doing anything very useful.

The same is true of multinational corporations - to the extent that the distinction serves to make any difference.

Yet this apparently desperate situation - and it is quite desperate - is fraught with opportunity. Perhaps even more appealing is the realization that those who are on the front lines of hewing out a new way of coping with the demands of a rapidly emerging global culture are those who will be able to shape it's nature.

The demand for food, housing, stable social networks, well-regulated and reliable market transactions, transport, distribution, energy and communications are growing exponentially - and with no end in sight. Get your money working on something that doesn't involve the technology, mindsets and economic philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

You may be tempted to hear this as "learning to make do with less." Actually, what I'm saying is quite different. Every great leap forward in our history has been about learning to do better with less - less effort, less risk, less waste, fewer man-hours and a broad and general increase in both personal liberty and general living standards.

I do not aspire to a return to feudal culture and subsistence agriculture - as some silly-fringe Libertarians do. Nope, I aspire to the far more likely and easily realized, which is a future where we need far less energy to do what we want, and have far more options as to what that could conceivably be.

I aspire to a future where nobody needs to go hungry or feel useless - and the more options there are, the more likely that will be. I see a future in which the capability to be violent is seen as the insurance of peace - not a means to it, and certainly not a major economic sector. Rather, I foresee a return to the philosophy of the citizen-soldier, and a general commitment to policies that do not require us citizens to suck in our ponderous guts and go out and do or die. Our mercenaries and proxy armies have brought us little net profit as a nation and a culture, if any, compared to the cost. It's time we stopped pretending that acting unethically towards others is in any way defensible - even in the boardroom.

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