Saturday, October 29, 2011

alternatives to the current economic system, and constraints thereon

Responding to a question posed on LinkedIn, "What's a better alternative to the current global economic system?"

I'm tempted to say no alternative is possible, by which I mean that only incremental change can happen. The system we have is both enormously complex and intolerant of wholesale meddling. In the unlikely chance some fundamentally different system could be agreed upon, with a switchover date, you'd have people dealing in futures based on how long it would be before the alternative would collapse and we'd be back to business as usual.

Even incremental change directed away from the essential nature of the system as it currently exists is quite difficult. The system serves the interests of those able to apply leverage, both economically and in the sphere of public opinion, and fighting this is roughly equivalent to swimming upstream. Nevertheless, there are some things that might be done.

The existence of a malnourished, hopeless underclass is in no one's interest. It saps the spirit of a society and creates an element of instability that occasionally erupts as mob violence. This problem could be eliminated overnight through a guaranteed minimum income, or the equivalent in subsidies for food, housing, clothing, health care, and connectivity, with bonuses for self-improvement, and only a fraction of a dollar taken away for each dollar earned. The cost of this would be relatively small, compared with other ways we spend our money, and also small compared with the consequences of the loss to the economy of so many consumers, whose purchases help drive demand and therefore the profitability of business, and in any case measures of equal scope will become necessary as automation further reduces the percentage of the population that need work to maintain a given standard of living for the society as a whole. Raise the standard of living, and that percentage comes back up, but with constraints; some may need to retrain for two or three years for every year their skills are marketable.

In a world where corporations and individual fortunes transcend national boundaries, but taxation doesn't (except as nations themselves are expected to contribute to international funds), there are many ways to escape paying taxes, and the responsibility to do so has fallen out of fashion. While at this moment it might seem politically unachievable, vesting the power of taxation in some world-wide entity that also transcends national boundaries would help level the playing field, and, for example, diminish the pressure on local authorities to provide incentives that undermine the value of new enterprises located in their districts, and to overlook abusive practices.

Corporate personhood is also due for reexamination. While some of the consequences of this legal fiction make sense to me, corporations having the rights and responsibilities of the ownership of land, buildings, and machines, for instance, others do not. Intellectual property is a gray area for me. On the one hand it makes sense that a corporation ought to derive preferential benefit from research it conducted in-house or funded, while on the other hand it makes sense that the overall benefit would be greater if that research had been conducted according to academic norms of openness, at public expense. I don't believe corporations should be allowed to intervene in any way in the political process, neither directly by officially supporting or opposing parties, candidates, or ballot issues, nor indirectly through PACs, nor by compensating employees or officers who do so on their own time and/or out of their personal funds. On the other hand, I don't believe in the taxation of corporate income. Real estate and other property, yes, even liquid assets, but not income. Taxation on income should be deferred until it becomes the income of some real person, whether through payroll, stock options, or dividends. Regarding taxation of funds earned abroad and repatriated, presumably they've already been taxed by the countries in which they were earned, so it makes sense that they should be taxed here at a reduced rate, if at all.

To some these will sound like radical suggestions. To others they will seem far too tame. Such is the way forward.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Saturday, October 08, 2011

replacing Steve Job's sense for what people will want

Except for the small percentage of people with fluid imaginations, many of whom are borderline schizophrenic, people can't know what they want until they've seen it, or at least heard it described, or better yet tried it out for themselves. The ability to predict what people would want, and be willing to pay for, was no small part of Steve Jobs's genius, and, in the absence of another individual with that same gift, Apple will need a process that can produce results at least nearly as accurate as Steve's intuition did.

I think Apple has all of the elements from which to build such a process already, and only needs to connect them together. Their engineering and design operations already work closely together, each contributing new ideas. To this they only need to add retail; that's right, the stores, hundreds of them, with personnel in constant contact with Apple's customers.

They can't, of course, send product designs out for retail employees to show to customers. Not only would that approach completely negate the secrecy aspect of the company's culture (largely responsible for its mystique), but the feedback it yielded would be almost worthless.

Instead, they need to simply listen, when customers describe features they'd like to see implemented or products they'd like to see built, and pass along what they hear to a group back at Apple HQ, created for that purpose and closely connected to both engineering and design. That group would sift through the suggestions, recombine them, and pass along the most promising of them to product development managers, who might either initiate official projects or authorize skunkwork projects, depending on how close the idea was to describing a marketable product, meaning one that could be built economically enough using available technology to sell briskly at a customary markup.

Even better would be a structure wherein both design and engineering had representatives in the stores, design representatives on the floor and engineering representatives behind the genius bar. These would probably be retail personnel with special training, who would be called over to listen to customers's ideas while other personnel went on with the ordinary business of the store, and these special representatives in the stores could constitute the pool from which the group doing the sifting back at HQ was drawn, providing not only an advancement path (other than management) for retail but a section of the company which, properly led, would gradually become expert at identifying and describing potential products.

It's probably not necessary to have a pair of such representatives at every store, perhaps only 10%. If you think in terms of the adage about saying "no" to 1000 things to find the one thing worth doing, and expect that each such representative will glean an average of one reasonable idea per week, then 100 such representatives should produce one really good idea, worth pursuing, every 10 weeks or so, or about 5 per year. That might seem like a lot of wheelspinning to get a few good ideas, but good ideas are what keeps a company like Apple healthy, and just one blockbuster product would pay for many years of this approach. Moreover, in the meantime, there'd be thousands of customers who left the store feeling as though someone had really listened to them.

Friday, October 07, 2011

gone too soon, but still not done

Just over a month ago, I wrote (paraphrased) it was inconceivable that Steve Jobs was done. While fate has since robbed him of the pleasure of carrying out his plans personally, that he had plans for the future is certain (corroborated by Eric Schmidt), and that he was well aware he might not be around to see them through is just as certain. Some such plan may be laid out in his will, and there may be some hint of it in his official biography, but given his belief in the necessity of secrecy it's unlikely that the whole plan can be found in any combination of public sources.

That he had the means available to set something significant in motion is also certain, between his personal wealth and the array of people with whom he had strong personal connections. That he had the vision to do so should be apparent from his record at Apple, NeXT, and Pixar.

It's also likely that his plans don't particularly revolve around Apple, not because he'd run out of ideas for the company, but because it became necessary to turn over control of the company to others, and apart from perpetuating the culture that made the company so successful in the first place, he wouldn't want to constrain their freedom to respond to evolving technology and market conditions. Also, his $6 Billion would scarcely make a dent in the prospects for Apple, paling as it does in comparison with the company's cash reserves, but turned in some other direction it could make a huge difference, invested carefully, and still secure the financial future of his family.

So, while I can barely finish writing this through the tears, I'm still expecting something insanely great from the mind of Steve Jobs, perhaps even something that will capture the imagination of millions and change the world more profoundly than anything he lived to carry through himself.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

These grievances are not all-inclusive.

The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City (as edited on 10/1/11) appears below without comment.

Declaration of the Occupation of New York City


As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts. *

To the people of the world,

We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

*These grievances are not all-inclusive.