Tag Archives: economy

Guarding the Foundations of our Modern Day Good Fortunes


There are three foundations in how we think that are at the root of our modern day prosperity: Good science, good laws, and good education for all. These intertwine, but the better they all are, the better our day-to-day challenges will be met, and the better our communities will function, now and in the future.

This essay was inspired by a disturbing 19 Oct 13 Economist article, Trouble at the lab, which describes at length a surprising way that good science is now under threat. It is under threat because the publishers of science articles are not being vigilant enough about checking the experiments that support the conclusions published in their articles. This is bad because if the science isn’t good, then the decisions that are based on the science won’t be good either.

This may not be as heart-string-tugging as feeding the poor, but it’s just as important, and if it’s not corrected a lot of poor won’t get fed, and the others are just as important for feeding the poor too.

The Three Foundations

Good science, good laws, good education. These are the foundations for progress, for improving everyone’s lot in life.

Good science tells us what the harsh realities are of the physical world we live in. The more science we know the more we know about what is physically possible and impossible. (In this usage “possible” also includes thinking in terms of cost-benefit.) The more we know about what is possible the more we can be efficient and effective in fulfilling our deepest wants and dreams. Conversely, when our science understanding isn’t good we waste time and effort trying to do things that can’t be done, or we waste time and effort by not using tools and techniques that could be discovered, but haven’t. Both kinds of missed opportunities slow progress and waste resources.

Good laws allow the experimenting that must be done to both discover new science and discover how to make the best use of it. These two are different projects and equally important. Both take a lot of effort, and a lot of that effort is going to look like waste until a workable result appears. Think of Thomas Edison’s famous dictum: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” When laws have a special interest agenda, when they aren’t promoting an equal playing field for exploring ideas and letting lots of people partake in the exploring, they are slowing progress as much as bad science does.

Good education is important because the community decides what is progress. The community is making choices on what is important to spend time and attention on, and making choices as to which laws should get passed and enforced. If the community doesn’t have the education to make good choices, good choices won’t be made. What we will get instead are good “from the heart” choices… the kind that work well in the Neolithic Village environment, not in a prosperous, diverse, globalized, modern environment.

This is why we have universal public education. We have it because it was recognized early in the Industrial Age that widespread education brought value to the community. The modern form got its start in Prussia in 1763 and its value was quickly recognized in other industrializing societies, such as colonial America. Again, the important part of this is that everyone gains value when everyone is well educated. These days this doesn’t seem to be as clear to many members of the community as it has been in the past.

Some examples

o Bad science means money badly spent — Science is used to predict the physical future. Where the science is bad, things designed using that science will be bad too.

oo Bad medicine — Biology is one of the big frontiers in science of the 2010’s. One of the big uses for biological research is designing more effective medicines and medical devices. If the experiments being done to demonstrate effectiveness and safety are done in slapdash ways, and little effort is spent on trying to reproduce the results so the slapdashness can be identified, we will have slapdash medicine and devices on our shelves. And that’s just the first round of trouble. The second round of trouble is that people of the community won’t be able to tell the difference between biological real science and biological pseudo-science. Health care is an emotional topic. Even in the best of times it’s hard to keep “from the heart” thinking from being the decision maker on health issues. If the science side has to be taken with a heaping grain of salt because of unreliable experimentation…

oo Mixing religion into science — Religion is based on feel-good thinking. It’s tempting to mix it into science so you can have feel-good science. Sadly, harsh reality and feel-good don’t mix so easily, so the more feel-good that is mixed into science the less useful it becomes as a predictor of harsh reality. Creationism doesn’t help unravel the implications of DNA sequencing. Oh… and mixing politics into science is just as bad for just the same reasons. What should mix with science is cost-benefit thinking — let’s spend first on those projects that look like they will bring big benefits.

o Laws based on emotion — Most laws are based on emotion. They are proposed and passed because there is a disagreement within the community on how to do something — some people feel strongly that [X] is OK, while others feel strongly that it is not. Emotion is OK, but we need to recognize that it is also expensive — sometimes very expensive. I’m thinking War on Drugs as I say this. That said, it is wise to keep in mind that emotion and harsh reality often mix poorly. Again, I’m thinking War on Drugs. What follows are some other ways that emotion, poor universal education, and law making mix poorly.

oo Ignorance favors taking cheap shots — If the community doesn’t know any better, it’s a constant temptation for the leaders to work a personal agenda into their decision making. Democracy works reliably when it is in the context of informed democracy — when the community members understand the issues and have the education to understand the difference between good and bad solutions to the issues.

oo special interest lobbying — Lobbyists gain influence when the community is not paying attention. If the community is paying attention and understands what’s at stake a lobbyist becomes just another guy at the politician’s doorstep. Once again, emotion plus ignorance can powerfully feed silly law making. Here I’m thinking of the crazy-quilt farm subsidies in the US and around the world.

oo Gaming the system — Being able to game a system is a powerful opiate. If I think laws are giving me something for nothing, it’s hard for me to vote against them. Here, more than in any other area, good education for all is vital. If people are well educated they can see the costs of system gaming. Then even when they are a target beneficiary they can be more cool-headed in their choices of supporting a law or not.

oo Scars of panic law making — Hasty law making, laws made while people are deeply angry or scared by something, usually produces seriously expensive law choices, and the expense will go on for many decades. The law is a scar rather than a cure. Putting up some resistance to this is the biggest virtue of the US “checks and balances” governing systems. We need to become even more mindful of this phenomenon and design law making with even more resistance to it, or easier recovery from it.

o Education means better laws and better science — People make laws; people do science; people work with fruits of both science and law making to create our lifestyles. This is why educating everyone well is so important. If you can’t work well with these fruits you’re being wasteful. If you can’t tell the difference between good and bad fruits, you’re wasting yourself and the community’s resources. If most of the community can’t tell the difference, the waste will be big time.

oo Compare South Korea and Haiti — Following the Korean War in the 1950’s South Korea and the Haiti were both impoverished places. In the decades since then South Korea has moved from deeply impoverished to a fully developed nation. Haiti has remained deeply impoverished — it was and still is the cow’s tail in the Western Hemisphere. The difference? One is that the people of South Korea knew how important education was and consistently devoted lots and lots of resource to doing it, and learning to do it better and better. In addition to increasing material prosperity this also let the Korean government peacefully evolve from dictatorship into democracy — their law making got better.


Good science, good law making and good education for all are the roots of modern prosperity. These are intertwined, they support each other… or they fall apart together. For this reason it is important to sustaining our modern culture that we be vigilant and dedicated in supporting all three. We must do them well now, and we must work hard on doing them even better in the future.


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Thoughts on Learning History From Primary Source Documents


This essay has been inspired by two patterns I have encountered. The first is noticing how many books in the History section at the book store are based on newly uncovered diaries by first-hand witnesses to an event, such as soldiers’ diaries discussing a war. The second is that the history course I’m taking at Salt Lake Community College also emphasizes these primary source documents.

This is different than the history learning I grew up with. The books and courses I encountered in the 1960’s emphasized “big picture” history. In the case of war stories they were books written by historians, generals and statesmen who explained the circumstances, the goals of both sides, their limitations, and how events unfolded in ways that surprised the participants, and how they reacted to the surprises.

What are the ramifications of this change in historical perspective?

In my opinion they aren’t good, and this essay is about why.

Why learn history?

The most compelling reason to learn history has been said in many ways similar to “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This particular version is often attributed to George Santayana, a Harvard Professor at the beginning of the 20th century, but many people with a love of history have said something similar. But this is not the only goal. Another is fun story telling, as in telling stories of triumphs and tragedies. Another is to teach morality lessons and propaganda. The first of these, patterns useful in predicting, is of most interest to me these days. So for me identifying new patterns that help my crystal ball gazing is the really fun part.

And for that reason this shift from “big picture history” to “primary document history” is a mystery.

The limitations of Primary Document History

I was a soldier in the Vietnam War. I arrived during the “Counter Tet” campaign. This campaign was undoing the damage done by the numerous surprise attacks of the Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam Army (NVA) during Vietnam’s Tet (New Year) holiday of January 1968.

I was there… but in truth I know little about what happened. Why? Because Counter Tet happened all over Vietnam, and I was stationed in just one place, and I was very busy learning the ropes. I can tell you first hand about what happened at Hotel 3 heliport, nestled between two runways of the big Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, but that’s it.

The point is: If I want to tell you about Counter Tet, or the Vietnam War, I have to read about it, just like everyone else. (That said, if you are interested in learning more about my experience there — reading the primary source document I created and seeing some on-the-spot photos I took — check here: My Little Chunk of Vietnam (68-69)).

This limited viewpoint is an intrinsic weakness of getting history from primary source documents: They are presenting the small picture. The picture can be intense and highly emotional, but it can also be seriously flawed. Let’s look at diaries as an example:

o As mentioned above, if the writer is a cog in the machine, you’re going to get the cog’s point of view.

o If the diary is written years or decades later, memory is going to tidy up events to better match the writer’s personal agenda.

o The diary can be a complete fabrication — written by an imposter to promote an agenda. If a diary is “discovered” decades later in an attic or at a yard sale or some such. Watch out!

An example from my history class: The teacher pointed us to Cherokee.org to view a primary source document about the Indian Removals of the 1830’s. One of their showcase documents is an account written by John G. Burnett an army man who was part of the program. So far, so good. But…

o This was written by him when he was 79 to entertain his family on his 80th birthday. This is sixty years later and written to wow the grand kids.

o He was a private at the time of the removal, and a mountain man before that.

This writer’s circumstance sets the mood for the result: It’s describing melodrama. But the site loves it as a primary source!

So learning history from diaries always has a big weaknesses in scope, and can easily have a lot of weakness in veracity. Letters, editorials and proclamations from the time of the event have the weakness of being written with an agenda in mind, and once again, only the small picture available. Conclusion: all primary source documentation must be read with skepticism. And, they aren’t going to be about the big picture.

Why is the big picture important?

The big picture is where the useful patterns show up. Human events happen to people, but the tide of history happens to communities. An example of getting this wrong is paying attention to what I call “gossip history”. Another example from my history class: Robert Penn Warren in one of his books speculates on what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln’s family had moved south from Kentucky and Jefferson Davis’ family had moved north? Would they have switched roles? Become opposite presidents? Would The South have won the war?

My answer: No, there would be little difference because the fates of Lincoln and Davis are pebble-size splashes in the big river of destiny. The names in our history books would change, but little else. And I think it’s almost certain that neither Lincoln or Davis would have made it into these alternate history books because both had a whole lot of ambitious and equally capable competitors. Both became legends of our history because of historic accident: They were in the right places at the right times. Gossip history presumes that historic figures are somehow blessed and destined for greatness no matter what their choices — that these leaders are chosen people. My presumption, based on the big picture, is that someone is destined to be picked for greatness, but you can’t pick out who beforehand. The person who becomes great in history books becomes great because they become an icon for an important concept.

The big picture in the case of the Ante Bellum/Jacksonian America that leads up to the Civil War is about changing technologies, changing social structures, and changing demographics. People were using new inventions. Wealth was coming into the hands of new people because those inventions were working out so well. This success liberated both thinking and feet — people were coming up with thousands of new ideas and people were moving around all over America to experiment with them. It wasn’t your granddaddy’s America at all! These technological and social changes were both wonderful and deeply scary. It was the scary part that brought about the Civil War, not the impassioned speeches of leaders, or the historic accidents of who became the leaders.

An example of the benefit of getting the big picture

I was teaching in Korea when the 9-11 Disaster happened. It was a jaw-dropper for sure! But I quickly began writing about what would happen. Based on the patterns that I had started identifying in the history I’d read to that date, I had developed a model that I call Panic Thinking and Blunder Reaction. Here is what I forecast at that time: Post September 11th: The American Panic of the 2000’s and for more essays following this one over the years, here’s the Cyreenik Says editorial index.

This collection of insights is the benefit of learning big picture history.


It is interesting and surprising that the good intention of emphasizing primary source documents has produced the surprising result of turning history into first person story telling — surprising to me, anyway. The history being taught today centers on stroking the “being there” emotion. As a result much of primary source document-oriented history ends up being melodrama and propaganda. It’s not about gaining the big picture, a picture that can be useful as a powerful predictor for what will be happening in our near future. When our predictions are good, we can respond well.

The goal of all our learning is to give us the tools to make our world a better place. For this reason we should be emphasizing big picture history.



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Blind Spot Thinking: Visible Personal Sacrifice Saves the World


“The world is in deep trouble. I’m going to do my small part to save it by [fill in the blank]. I’m doing my part. You should too. Then we will all be doing our small part, and the world will be a better place.”

This is Visible Personal Sacrifice thinking (VPS). For many people VPS thinking is the emotional core of solving various knotty problems ranging from resource exhaustion through animal rights to global warming. The heart of the thinking supporting VPS is, “Yes, this problem is big and scary, but part of solving it is for each of us to do our small part by making a sacrifice in a personal and visible way. So here, I’m doing my part. See!”

This is noble and good intentioned thinking. But it’s also instinctive, which means what it recommends as feeling like a good solution should be examined carefully using analytic thinking, or it will create waste not good results. When this careful examination is not conducted, we have blind spot thinking rather than a good solution to a serious problem.

Why is this important? It’s important because thinking blind spots lead to long-term wasteful activities. People undertake the sacrifices and then think, “See! I’m doing my part to save the world… and you should, too!” But the reality is that the sacrifices are not solving the root problem at all, and there can be huge waste caused by the misdirected attention that comes with solving problems using blind spot thinking.

So we have a new Roger Truism:

Blind spot solutions: They feel good, but they aren’t solving.

And there is a surprise connection: It is between VPS and fashion. What I see being promoted in fashion magazines as ways to look beautiful are ways of showing off VPS — sacrificing for beauty. Striving for beauty is as old as mankind, so this connection may explain why VPS resonates strongly with many people’s thinking.

Discovering this blind spot

The first inkling of this blind spot came to me years ago when then-VP Al Gore complained that companies advertising “X percent recycled” were often “cheating” because they included recycling that went on within the manufacturing plant. He wanted only what made it into consumers hands and then back again to be counted.

“Seems a bit strange,” was my thinking at the time, “Either way, it’s getting recycled,” then give it little further thought.

But over the past few weeks I have detected a new pattern, and that new pattern is the comfortable thinking VPS can bring to people who are supporting causes. When VPS is supporting a cause, supporting the VPS can become the center of attention, displacing really solving the problem. I notice this happening when VPS is connected with liberal causes fired by good intentions.

(Keep in mind that VPS is far from the only way to support blind spot thinking. Another common way is Pillar of Faith thinking, a style which more commonly supports conservative causes. Yet another common way is fear, such as “Save the Children” which supports moral panic thinking.)

The waste supported by VPS

As pointed out in the Al Gore example, VPS can support seeing-trees-versus-the-forest thinking. The ecology->environment->global warming movement of the past four decades is filled with examples of good intentions supporting wasteful solutions, so I’m going to use it as a backdrop.

Back in the seventies recycling to save our environment became a popular issue. This started the putting trash in appropriate receptacles movement and the “plastic or paper?” question at the groceries.

The inefficiencies that these VPS choices supported are:

o The first is inflexibility: What to recycle and who wants to buy it are constantly changing markets. Because of this constant change, recycling can best be conducted at a collection point: the landfill and the junkyard. The sorters at these locations can know on a day-by-day basis what is valuable to collect, and the consumers of recycled materials have a one-stop shopping spot.

o The second is poor analysis: Plastic and paper covered up and sitting in anaerobic conditions (as they are when buried in a landfill) both last centuries. An example: Read the articles about the delight archeologists have when they unearth centuries-old leather and cloth objects from middens and tannin-filled swamps. What this means is that for landfill-destined stuff weight is more important than degradability — which means that plastic bags, which weigh a tenth of what paper bags do, are better for the environment.

Following that campaign, the VPS environmentalist types decided that putting more renewable resource into gasoline would help save the world. Supporting farmers and resource conservation combined! Whew! An emotionally powerful combination! The Ethanol in Gas movement sprang into being. Nice… Noble… But over the last few decades this has become a textbook example of good intentions being highjacked by special interests.

It turns about that formulating gasoline from crude oil is an art even more flexible than gourmet cooking — how to do it well changes from refinery-to-refinery and from day-to-day as the mix of different kinds of crudes and refining technologies available changes. The good intentions of the VPS thinkers had the federal and California governments slap arbitrary, slowly-flexing limits on top of this fine, fast-moving art. And with time those limits became of much more interest to agribusiness special interests than to VPS types — the VPS types moved on to the next cause. The result: In the 2010’s we have news articles describing how US government-mandated ethanol corn production is raising global food prices — this is waste writ large.

And the 2010’s are introducing their own styles of environment-related VPS thinking. As the Great Recession of the late 2000’s unfolded, resource conservation became a big emotional concern again. (The Great Depression of the 1930’s was also a time of deep concern about resource exhaustion.) This time the concern was named the Green Movement and supported using sustainable resources in place of “Peak” resources that were more polluting and could be exhausted.

The question became whether to support fracking, nuclear, solar panels or windmills. The VPS types supported solar and wind mills, even though doing so cost jobs.

“But… But… Supporting these created jobs!” enthusiasts will argue. Yes, the subsidies created some green jobs, but many, many more jobs of all sorts were not created because the economy didn’t grow quickly. Once again, good intentions outweighed good results, and VPS became the important criterion rather than good analysis.

In sum, the wasteful result of the mistaken analysis is that job and wealth growth have been sacrificed to green in the US and Europe. This is a for-real sacrifice for all because it takes wealth to support green — lack of wealth is making all of us poorer and the world more degraded.

A Roger Truism from twenty years ago:

Technology can give back what it takes away [in ecological and cultural damage], but poverty plays for keeps.

Contemporary China is a good example. It has terrible pollution problems right now because it has chosen to industrialize. But the pollution will be reduced steadily and dramatically over the next decades because it now has more wealth and that wealth is steadily and dramatically rising. Because it has more wealth much more can now be spent on reducing pollution, and will be.

VPS and fashion

Once every few years I find myself sitting in a waiting room and I pick up a fashion magazine. The last time this happened I was surprised at the patterns I saw — the way these women were portrayed was thick with ritual. The one I remember most vividly was that every woman was wearing high heels… except those being posed on a beach… and every one of those was portrayed jumping so their feet could still be flexed into the high heel position! Whew!

I now realize that what I was looking at was VPS being used to portray beauty. Young women sacrificing for beauty dates back into pre-history — the details of the sacrifice change with each generation and culture, but the sacrificing does not. So the VPS thinking supporting various causes has a cousin in the VPS thinking that supports beauty. (I write a lot more about this in my books Evolution and Thought and How Evolution Explains the Human Condition.)

While many liberals are happy to point out that VPS in the fashion industry is a bad influence on impressionable young girls, they are equally happy to remain oblivious to the fact that steadily increasing manufacturing productivity inside factories is doing a lot more to save the world than bike paths and recycling bins. And that electric cars are not solving resource exhaustion and global warming problems until the power plants that charge their batteries are putting out less carbon than the internal combustion engines they are replacing.


These are the kinds of blind spots producing huge waste that VPS allows. This is why we need to be aware of it, and we need to be prepared to do a lot of analytic thinking as well as VPS if we really want to save the world.

VPS is noble, but if it is going to save the world it must be accompanied by hard-nosed analytic thinking which looks at the costs and benefits of choices being made.

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The Importance of a Community Dreaming Big, and Learning to Save

Beach-Fun-01Dreaming Big

The pyramids, the early Mormon temples in Utah, the Grand Canal in China. These are a few examples of a community dreaming big. Even while most of the community was living in mud huts, the people of these communities came together to produce a marvelous work and a wonder. These community members, rich and poor alike, felt that spending resource on their marvelous work was producing more value than spending that same resource on uplifting the average infrastructure of the community — things such as better roads, housing and food.


In these cases the importance of unifying the community was recognized. Each of these projects gave community members the opportunity to learn about cooperating with lots of other people, especially strangers. They learned cooperation and tolerance instead of learning “just standing around watching others”, or even worse, taking cheap shots at others’ projects with activities such as mocking, stealing and vandalism.

This lesson in cooperating with a larger group than family and friends is one each generation must learn. It isn’t instinctive, which means it isn’t easy to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s a vital lesson for civilized living.

As vital as it is, its importance is under appreciated more often than not. The community chattering classes, who follow their instincts, pay attention to divisive issues, not those which unify the community behind a big vision. The famous media truism, “If it bleeds it leads.” is an example of following instinct, and the result of following this instinct is more divisive thinking in the community. When people of the community aren’t picking up the cooperator lesson, the community learns acrimony instead of cooperation, and this is death on trust, which is death on progress.

For this reason having periodic big dreams for a community to pursue is vital to the community bettering itself. If these are not developed and pursued vigorously, the community will decline… sinking into a sea of acrimony, and a status quo which accepts steady decline as part of the local living package. A personal example of seeing this happening was the Midwest Disease that sank Cleveland and Detroit starting in the 1960’s. I grew up in Cleveland.

Picking the vision isn’t easy

Picking a big vision to follow is vital, but it isn’t easy. Kennedy got it right with the Space Race to the moon, Bush Jr. got it wrong with the War on Terror. One surprise turnabout was FDR as World War Two loomed. Through most of the 1930’s neither he nor anyone else in America could come up with a good big vision. We had the Great Depression. But when he decided that fighting Fascism in Europe was more important than fighting class warfare in the US, he did an impressive about-face and came up with a hugely successful series of big visions, starting with building the Arsenal of Democracy. After a decade of learning acrimony in the 1930’s, Americans learned to cooperate again during the harsh times of World War II in the early 1940’s, and were rewarded with fifty years of booming prosperity following it.

For a more recent example of picking first wrong, then right dreams, check out my book Surfing the High Tech Wave. It’s about Novell Inc. in the 1980’s, first when it got the dream wrong, then got it spectacularly right and became a billion dollar company at the heart of a brand new multi-billion dollar industry.

It isn’t easy, but if you get the dream right, and promote it right, some in the community will grumble, but everyone will get on board and love the result. If you get it wrong, a lot of people choose to watch from the sidelines and there’s a whole lot more grumbling. And it will be followed with a lot of harsh “I told you so!” when the dream founders.

In sum, communities need a periodic big vision. It teaches people how to cooperate. If people don’t learn to cooperate, they learn to be acrimonious. If they learn to be acrimonious the community will support status quo instead of innovation, and slow, steady decline instead of rapid, exciting and disruptive, growth.

Learning to Save: Yes, we need to learn it

This thought was inspired by a video, Wealth Inequality in America, that’s been popular on Facebook. It’s about the inequality of wealth distribution in the US. The implication of this video, and the various 1%/99% movements that have been popular since the Great Recession started, is that this inequality should be fixed by fixing the 1% in some fashion: They should make less and hand out more.

I thought about this: This solution is easy instinctive thinking. And it’s a good intention. …Wait! Good intention: That’s a waving yellow flag for me! It means I need to think more carefully about this…

With some more thinking, I realized there’s some fixing of the 99% that needs to happen, too. From the personal experience of watching how people around me live, it’s clear that living hand-to-mouth is a learned lifestyle. The implication of this is that no matter how much is taken from the 1% and showered down upon the 99%, there will still be about the same amount of hand-to-mouth living going on as there is now. This will be so… until many people are educated to think differently about savings.

People need to be educated to save. This is a lifestyle lesson that needs to be learned. Saving lots of money is not instinctive thinking for most people. Preaching this lesson harks back to the images of grandmas who grew up in Great Depression era settings haranguing their kids to save more for rainy days.

It should: Again, saving is a lesson that must be taught and learned. It’s not instinctive thinking for many people.

But it can be learned, and it’s not too hard to do so. From what I learned while living in Korea, the East Asian cultures have a tradition of putting about 30% of their income into savings.

So, if we want to fix wealth inequality in America, we need to be fixing the 99% as much as we need to be fixing the 1%. The 99% need to be learning lifestyles with more savings built into them, a lot more.

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Thoughts on how important social mobility is to America’s Lifestyle


As I was growing up in Cleveland in the 1960’s, high social mobility in America was a given. “Anyone can be president, even you,” our teachers told us as an indicator that we all had equal opportunities to succeed. This was part of the American way.

Recent essays I’ve been reading indicate that this is no longer so true. The wealth disparity has widened, which doesn’t bother me much, but the opportunity to move from poor to rich seems to be shrinking. This bothers me a lot. It means that the prosperity tide is not rising as fast as it should, which means all us Americans are suffering.

With this revelation, the issue of social mobility moves up to “important” on my list of things to pay attention to. It is also looks like one that can be corrected if we pay more community attention to it.

It can be corrected, but the solution will be a dramatic change in the social boundary of who gets involved in child raising and education. The new boundary will include a lot more time being spent by both children and parents in neighborhood-level educating activities — a neighborhood-oriented institution of some sort is going to become the new extended family for children and their raisers.


This essay was inspired by a 9 Feb 13 Economist article, Social mobility in America: Repairing the rungs on the ladder, and a related Economist Free Exchange article, Nomencracy. Both of these talk about measuring social mobility (a difficult task) and how it seems to have declined in America over the last two decades.

From the social mobility article:

“America is particularly exposed to the virtuous-meritocracy paradox because its poor are getting married in ever smaller numbers, leaving more children with single mothers short of time and money. One study suggests that the gap in test scores between the children of America’s richest 10% and its poorest has risen by 30-40% over the past 25 years.
American conservatives say the answer lies in boosting marriage; the left focuses on redistribution. This newspaper would sweep away tax breaks such as mortgage-interest deduction that help richer people, and target more state spending on the poor. But the main focus should be education policy.”

Surprise from the Seventies

As the Sexual Revolution of the 1970’s unfolded one of the warnings by conservative groups was that children would suffer. It would seem that this warning has come true, and along with children the community has suffered in a surprising way: less social mobility.

The contemporary conservative reaction has been, “I told you so. Now let’s go back to the good old ways. All you single moms: Get married!” This isn’t likely to happen. It’s also not likely that prosperous married families are going to strive for anything less than the best for their kids, so schemes to distribute wealth through taxing the rich and entitling the poor aren’t going to help this problem, either.

This means that if we want to be:
o improving social mobility
o making things more socially equal
o making America a better place for all

We need to be looking for new ways of handling child raising and educating — particularly for single parents because they are a large and growing class of child raisers.

Social Mobility, Education and Prosperity

This is an important issue because the whole community prospers as new and better ways of doing things are discovered and implemented. It’s not obvious and not talked about much, but prosperity at the top is limited by prosperity at the bottom. An example of this is that the pharaohs families in Ancient Egypt were at the top of their prosperity chain, but they still had to eat food in season and they still suffered from deadly infectious diseases. In many ways they did not have life as good as even a poor American of today.

This is an example of how important discovering new ways of doing things is to the prosperity of the whole community — top and bottom. This means, as the universal education enthusiasts of the 1800’s espoused, that good education for everyone in the community brings prosperity to everyone in the community.

In America in the 2010’s we are dropping the ball on this pillar. We need to recognize this and we need to be doing things differently. A vivid example of how much the ball has been dropped was the huge quantity of jaw-dropping dumbness spouted during the 2012 election campaign, on all sides and in the media. In 2012 Governor Bobby Jindal complained about Republicans becoming the party of stupid, but I see the bigger concern being America becoming the nation of stupid.

This is important, and in this day and age of lots of single parenting, child raising must be examined as much as child educating. We as a community need to be paying as much attention to child raising systems as we do to formal education systems… and both need a lot of attention.

What follows are some speculations I have on new child raising and educating systems. The goal of these is to have all the community better educated so we can all make better choices about how to run our communities and all have even more prosperity than we do today.

Child Raising Possibilities

The Matriarchy Neighborhood Approach

One possibility for a new child raising style is to deliberately encourage neighborly matriarchy — encourage a group of women in a neighborhood to share child raising activities with all the other women and children of the neighborhood. The neighborhood becomes a sea of children mixed with a sea of child raisers, all pretty much equally accessible. This has the advantage of harmonizing with the old Neolithic Village way of doing things, so it is harmonizing with instinctive thinking.

One big obstacle to this style is the contemporary deep fear of child abusers, kidnappers and predators. Another is Us versus Them thinking about neighbors. But there’s a lot of instinct supporting this matriarchy style, so this contemporary moral panic may be overcomeable.

Overcoming the fears will happen when there is a reliable program that child raisers can become part of, and becoming part of the program becomes expected.

The State-provided Child Care Approach

Getting children raised better is a community issue: Better raised children create a better community in the next decade. Just as the community currently provides schools, the community can provide day care and other child care options. I envision neighborhood playgrounds with standard supervision of some nature so latchkey kids can… no… are expected to go to the playground instead of sitting on a couch with a TV or video game. And more, there can be neighborhood field trips organized so that all the kids get to experience each other and the diverse world around them. The best way to handle this may be declaring some minimum child raising standards and a voucher system to pay for what is required.

And not just the kids, the parents should be expected to attend some of these activities on a regular basis. This is how they will get to know each other and how they will get to know what their kids are learning. Participating in these activities will come to be considered part of good parenting.

Developing new good advice

The heart of this improving battle is changing thinking and habits, so part of what will be needed is new good advice to be passed around the community. An example would be something like this for a truism: “For every hour you spend on self-indulgence spend an hour on improving you or your children.” This meaning that if you spend time at the beauty parlor or spa, plan on spending equal time on at the playground, on homework, or on a field trip — things that will improve the minds of you and your children.

Educating Possibilities

As the Industrial Revolution kicked in during the 1800’s, it became clear that educating everyone in the community was a big advantage. This understanding was the foundation for universal education concept we live with today. This is why we have public schools and laws saying everyone must be educated.

This benefit hasn’t changed. It has gotten more so. (Note: It will get less so when The Singularity happens and computers take over most of the manufacturing and service jobs, but we aren’t there yet.)

For this reason it is important that our education system reflect the harsh reality that a lot of children working through the system come from poor, single parent environments. Since this is new, it means doing a lot of experimenting to figure out what will work well in this new harsh reality. Sadly, the current American public education system is heavily “encrusted” with traditions and work rules that worked well when the nuclear family predominated. This encrusted environment must be scrapped and replaced with one open to experimenting and innovating. This is the way we will see big progress in better educating all our children.

The goal of these new systems should be to widen the number of people involved in raising a child. Over time in the US we have gone from the extended family to the nuclear family to the single parent. This shaving off of people involved in raising a child should be reversed. There should be lots of people involved again.

And, again, this new school environment and this new child care environment need to feed back on each other. They should pay attention to each other.

How Much State Involvement? How much Busybody Involvement?

Who should decide when a parent is doing it right or doing it wrong?

With local school boards and state Child Protective Services agencies (CPS) we have a lot of government involvement in these processes already. We also have lots of locally-given advice and lots of media bandwidth. In sum, there are dozens of places a child rearer can turn to for advice, and many of those will provide forceful advice that must be followed whether the parent wants to, or not.

This is not surprising. In the Neolithic Village environment most first time mothers were in their teens and Bride Thinkers (my term). They were young and inexperienced, so advice and support helped not only the young mother but the community as well. This means giving advice to first time mothers is supported by powerful instinct. What has changed dramatically since Neolithic times is the family relations surrounding that mother — in those days the advice was accompanied by a lot of family support as well as advice.

What we now need to do is recognize that any forceful advice being given must be matched with forceful resource being provided. The community must put up money and warm bodies as well as mouth in dealing with this issue. We need to update the advice and support given single mothers. Again, we need to recognize that the better these children are raised, the better the whole community will function when these kids grow up. Our communities will support less “crazy” if the members are well educated.

This universal education pillar must be recognized as important again, and sincere attention paid to it, and it must be extended to include child raising as well as child educating.

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Thoughts on Immigration

C-Expo-04These thoughts are inspired by reading a 2 Feb 13 Economist article, The Ins and the Outs, about immigration in the Nordic countries. This article talks about the fact that most immigrants that have come to the Nordic states have come because of economic hardship and violence in their homelands. The insight to me was this is not the same as coming to a new land for better employment.

Giving this more thought, I now break immigration into three general categories. (with the caveat that immigration, like most other human activities, is actually more diverse than what I’m describing.)

o immigrating to get a better paying job
o immigrating to get away from poverty and violence
o immigrating as part of a nomad cycle

These three motivations lead to very different thinking on the part of the immigrants when they set up shop in their new community.

The immigrant who moves to get a new job is mentally prepared for a lot of change and ready to accept “when in Rome”-style changes to his or her lifestyle. This person’s attention is focused on doing something valuable for the community they have moved into and getting paid very tangibly for their efforts. Because they have made a lot of personal sacrifice in terms of culture shock, they are usually doing something responsible with their hard-earned wages, such as saving it to improve their lifestyle in the future, or sending it back to needy family members in the home country. If these people can come and go — immigration policies don’t require them to do a lot of hoop-jumping — they will.

The immigrant who moves because someone in a remote place thinks they are living a terrible life comes to the new land with a different mindset. (This is the kind of immigrant the article describes as common in the Nordic countries.) They are not thinking much about working, and they haven’t really given up on their homeland lifestyle, so they are not as accommodating of “When in Rome”-style changes to how they must do things. The result is these style of immigrants are much more likely to sustain “ghetto”-style living conditions in their new land, and stay outside the new land cultural mainstream.

The nomadic immigrant is even more likely to stay outside the cultural mainstream of the new land. The current typical example of this style is the Roma wandering around Europe. Neither they nor their ancestors had any great desire to settle down and get with the local program. What these people are interested in is learning how to deal with locals without becoming locals. This leads to goals and lifestyles that are quite different from either the working immigrants or the hardship immigrants.

In sum, dealing with immigration and trying to develop immigration policies needs to recognize that immigration comes in a lot of flavors, and the goals and tolerance levels for picking up local’s ways of doing things is different for each flavor.

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The Mystery of the Rise and Fall of Boom Communities


History records the rise and fall of countless human communities. From the ancient Mesopotamia and the city of Ur, through the modern Rust Belt in the US Midwest, communities have boomed and become shining beacons, and then busted back into obscurity.

The mystery is “Why?” Why does every boom seem to carry in it the seeds of its own return to mediocrity? The people who create these booms are clever in the most practical sense. They are clever enough to create the boom in the first place, but they can’t seem to pass on the magic. They can’t seem to consistently teach their children or other successors how to be “boomers” like they were. What spoils the magic?

If life were different

Consider how different history would be if teaching booming was well understood. If that was the case today we’d be reading about the centuries of consistent glories that have sprung from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Yellow River valley because these are places where the booming started and they’d never loose their lead. They would be the New York City’s, London’s and Shanghai’s of today as they had been since the early BCE’s. But this isn’t our history so the conclusion must be: Booming is not easy to teach.

Theories of declines and falls

I’m far from the first to notice this phenomenon and its been an interesting one for history writers for a long time. One of the more enduringly famous is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. From the Wiki article: “According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle.”

Just recently I read a 13 Oct 12 NY Times book review, The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent by Chrystia Freeland, which reviews the book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The article describes in fair detail how the Golden Age of Venice in the early 1300’s came and went. The thesis is that the plutocrats of Venice cut off their own continued growth by over-controlling the disruptive economy that was at the heart of their growing prosperous in the first place — after growing prosperous for a few decades, the “winners” of the day made up a list of winners, gave that list legal teeth, and that brought on an era of stability which ended the era of growth.

Roger’s Observations

First off, let me note that rises and declines come in many time and size scales. The Roman rise and decline took ten centuries, the Venetian rise and decline took one. Apple Inc.’s first rise took ten years, as did many other high tech leading companies of the 1980’s-2000’s. Cleveland, my favorite example, boomed from its founding in 1814 through the 1950’s. In 1920 it was America’s fifth largest city.

That noted, let’s break a memorable boom into three phases: boom, peak and post-peak. I will talk about communities. These are human organizations of any size from family up to cultural region.

Anatomy of a boom

In the beginning, a soon-to-be-memorable booming community is just one of many. It has lots of competitors and not much notable about it in its earliest days. Rome was just one of many competing tribes in Italy, Cleveland just one of many thriving cities west of the Appalachians in frontier America, Apple just one of many hopeful startups in Silicon Valley in the 1970’s.

As these communities are competing there is a lot of overall growth but there is weeding out happening, too, some communities are growing steadily, others are faltering. And there is consolidation happening, the winners are picking up people and resources from the falterers. This happens because the winners seem to be able to use those resources better than the falterers can. In the high tech environment people move from faltering companies to winning companies because the winners can afford them and the falterers can’t anymore.

As they continue their strings of success the winners become more noticeable. They become standards in their area of endeavor and a lot more surrounding people pay attention to them. Those noticing start asking, “What is your secret?”

Anatomy of a peak

While a community is booming a lot of tough choices are being made made. They are tough because they are expensive, and scary, and involve doing things differently than they were done before. This is the lifeblood of being a booming community, and making these choices well is what distinguishes the memorable boom community from its lost-in-the-noise competitors. Not all the choices made are right, but more of the important ones are chosen well than competitors do.

At the peak something changes. As the peak is reached the number of good tough choices made by the memorable community declines compared to competitors and its own recent past.

My theory is that the root of this transformation from above average to average is that what community members think about, what they think is important, changes. A new generation of decision makers emerges and that new generation doesn’t like supporting constant tough choices. When what the community thinks is important changes, the leadership will change as well. Historians tend to attributed such changes to the leaders, but my feeling is that leaders are much closer to their community’s feelings than that — they make choices that are compatible with what the numerous but less visible decision makers in the community want.

Two examples from the business world: At some point in the growth of many high tech companies there is a change in top management from “visionaries” to “managers”. This often happens as they grow from small to medium sized. In my book Surfing the High Tech Wave I write about how this happened at Novell nine years after its startup in 1989. The change at Novell precipitated an “organizational phase shift” which changed Novell’s direction of development. The second example is a common business truism that when a company grows to the point that it can move into its own building, as in, one built for it, the company culture will change and that change can be towards complacency — managers must be on their toes as the move happens. Both of these can be times when a peak is reached for the company and its boom times end.

So the peak is reached when many members of the community decide that the constant tough choices that it took to make the boom happen, and are necessary to sustain it, are no longer worth the effort.

This change of thinking is the “seed” that brings on the end of the boom and begins the post-peak era.

Anatomy of post-peak

Historians bemoan them but post-peak times are actually fairly comfortable times for most community members. At first there is a sense of relief from the constant change and uncertainty that are part and parcel of boom times and that is followed by comfortable complacency. Rules and regulations are enacted and life becomes much more predictable — people know their places. The article about Venice mentioned above talks at length about this happening in Venetian society; I witnessed it personally as I was growing up in Cleveland. In Cleveland in the 1960’s “being fair” became a much more important part of day-to-day business decision making than making things work better than they had before.

When the peak comes lots of people support this change to greater harmony, but the ambitious ones don’t. They chafe. And, if they can’t change the way things are done back to supporting tough booming choices, they will leave, looking for better opportunities. (Coming back to supporting boom sometimes happens. Apple is a company that came back when Jobs came back, New York and London are cities that have consistently come back to supporting boom.) A famous historic example of looking elsewhere to support a boom is Italian Christopher Columbus finding investors for his crazy idea in Spain rather than Italy.

In most cases the people who stay in the post-peak community don’t mind that glory is passing them by. Their day-to-day lives are comfortable ones. And so, the glory moves on. It goes to some other community that is still competing and still willing to support the tough choices that come with booming change. This seems to be very much the human way.


Booming is exciting and rewarding. But its not easy and the rewards are not necessarily those that the community values the most. Famous booms happen when a community supports tough choices and those choices turn out to be consistently good ones.

But boom times are both scary and full of change. When a decision making generation takes over that doesn’t like all the tough choices and changes, a peak happens. The way things are done changes to a more predictable style, and this style becomes a comfortable one for a lot of community members.

If the community doesn’t reverse itself, and support the tough choices again, then the ambitious will move on and take their ambition to some other community successfully supporting boom, and the community they leave will comfortably move into the obscurity of being average again.

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