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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bicycle



A bicycle. A golden bicycle. That's how I like to think of our present situation. Luckily it's not a stationary bike, but a mountain model, capable of riding out rough terrain. The bicycle that is now is the ultimate opportunity for job creation. How so?

I'm a firm believer that an economy needs a new catalyst for job growth every six to eight years. Unfortunately with tenures in leadership typically shorter, such a purpose is often left forgotten, like an umbrella in the closet on a rainy day; or, if articulated, it often evaporates quickly in practice. This is nothing new. In fact, in the '90s Clinton was able to grasp this essential driver of the U.S., recognizing the IT opportunity and creating an elaborate environment of incentives, taxation, collaborations, and goals fertile for the IT revolution to grip the air and soar, creating new sectors, realms, and inculcating itself in every niche of our lives. Unfortunately, with relatively short terms in leadership, many higher ups are pressured to produce amazing results in a knee‑jerk flash (a disease of the finance industry as well). As a result, all of us see the world as a blurred moving image, rather than taking the time to stand and take in what's in front of us and perhaps take a scenic still frame to look back on. It's not a lack of ingenuity we have, but a lack of vision, a lack of clarity.

Fortunately what has landed on our front step as we open the red, white, and blue door is not just one prime job spark, but three— a whole bicycle's worth. The front wheel is energy, the rear wheel is infrastructure, and the bicycle frame joining them together is education. Again, I don't want to simply provide talking points, but wanted a good framework to put everything together.

As the front wheel steers us and balances us in precarious situations, so will energy, as the country that leads energy from herein, while no doubt, lead the world's prosperity. Energy (and "energy poverty") is the looming global issue of our time. As has been beaten into our heads, the prospect of a new wave "green collar" jobs is a certainty. As the front wheel, novel energy will take the lead in innovation and will spark both higher design, service, and analytical jobs and a new manufacturing industry. What is needed is the proper topography to build off of, and that does not exist— the cap‑and‑trade plan in the works is a sore inadequacy. We do not need a reprise, we need something transformative. Only when we price carbon most effectively will this front wheel be unlocked. This is not just about climate change (I hate the term global warming as it is often relegated to a joke, suggests something gradual, and completely misses the point on so many effects of climate change), but about that spark that we need every so often.

With all this, we fall back on the rear wheel, infrastructure, to provide the fundamental driving force for all other realms to work. Here again, we cannot just be reactive. The opportunities run across the gamut— schools, roads, hospitals, airports, communications, water, ports, levees— and, while not the most glamorous endeavors, their impact will surely be. Also, these do not just have to be dreary feats of cranes and trucks; as the front wheel has a stake its rear counterpart, we will need people to weatherize buildings and advance our archaic, patchwork electrical grid (power companies don't know your power is out unless you call them and tell them).

Lastly, education, the frame, is needed to hold these pieces together. Here again lies a golden opportunity on which to innovate in methods and emphases, as well as elevate in incentives and reputation. The job spark is as much as in spurring quality as it is in access; while two thirds of the U.S. actually has a system competitive with the Singapores and Norways of the world, the education poverty in the bottom one third pulls the nation down. While our higher education system remains unmatched in the world, access is again the issue. In education, there are two different countries within our own.

Thus, the bicycle gives us a reservoir of jobs. These jobs are no longer latent or pent up. Let's unchain this and make sure it's well oiled. Additionally, with the contours of our opportunity un‑mapped and un‑excavated and to keep mama proud, a helmet is in order.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Psyche Unleaded

We've unleaded our gasoline. It's time to offer a society unleaded, an American psyche unleaded. No, I'm not talking about energy or oil. I'm talking about guns. I know little of constitutional law or the gun control debate, but it's plain to see that we have a problem and difficult to ignore the extraordinary tragedies of violence that have unfolded in shopping centers, nursing homes, and universities over the past few years.

I wholly understand and support the existential right to self defense, but this is not the flashpoint. The issue at hand is the underlying psyche of America— a twisted one borne of a three hundred year old mind-frame awkwardly persisting in a changed, modern world. I'm sure it has perplexed and, at times, amused most of us that the precious right to wield pint size, lead-hurling killing machines made it all the way up to second in line under the right to free speech. Yes, the debate has the slight aroma of town mouse-country mouse, but it's more than just that. I like the city and the country equally, but have never really understood buying a gun, hunting deer/quail, or civil war paraphernalia. And I'm sure many can find my obsession with LeBron James and Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee alien as well. While we can conjure the images of backwater, gun clinging, Bible slinging un-sophisticate, such blanket representations are parochial in themselves and miss the point. However, they do come from somewhere and reflect an aspect of the American psyche, one that is all too ignorant of the world stage, ignorant of context, and ignorant of connection.

What does this have to do with guns? The weighty right to bear arms stems from a different era— a time of militias, defending America's sovereignty, defending state sovereignty, and overall existential uncertainty and un-clarity. It's not just that we were young and building our nation, but we were vulnerable, insecure, and protective of fresh new ideas. The greatest qualities of America are that it is so fiercely independent, self reliant, and surviving. While such a qualities work wonderfully in so many ways with business, policy, and freedom, they do not mix well with lethal weapons. The oil and water combination is further compounded by three main chasms (that also resonate in conservative thinking):

  • Failure to fully understand that cultures change as economies and education change. Clearly, the ancient caste hard lines in India have mostly melted away as social mobility has increased and the economy has prospered. Further, in Iran, women in the early 1980's typically had nearly six children, but with a surge in women's education and health access in the next two decades, they now average two children.
  • Underweighting of individual responsibility, not just to America, but to the globe. Freedoms in a young America seemingly came with no strings attached. But, in a much more crowded world, responsibility needs to be half the pie.
  • Complete ignorance (or at best a superficial understanding) of the sharedness and connectedness of today's world. There is much to be understood on what bank account we put our money in, what car we drive, to what we eat affects a rancher in Montana or a squatter in Somalia.

All of these bubble up from one simple reality— we live in a different world today than yesterday and it will be different tomorrow. When we were kids, my brother and I used to debate about which was the tallest building in the world— the Sears Tower in Chicago or the World Trade Center in New York; now one of them tragically does not exist and the tallest truth is half a world away in Taiwan with an even taller blueprint coming to life in Dubai.

Arcane norms suited for Virgina coal towns in the early nineteenth century cannot mesh with the broader world today. This is not 1809. We live in a world with more than five billion additional people. We are not sitting on our porches protecting our backyards with "No Trespassing" boards. When will we realize that today's "trespassers," or immigrants and first generation Americans, make up half of the vertebrae in America's working class backbone, hold more than half of America's Ph.D.'s, and own half the innovative companies in Silicon Valley.

We could talk about gun control laws until the cows come home. We could even make analogies to world nuclear disarmament and how to make society safer by doing the same with guns. What about a Gun Non-proliferation Treaty? Abstinence education has been shown to have little effect, but how about abstinence from violence? We have a right to bear arms, but we need a mandate to drop arms. What about education? In many parts of the country it is easier for an inner city youth to obtain a nine millimeter handgun than to get hold of a world class education.

While these points are important, in the grand picture, they are just tactical. Broader, more disparate notions have much more to do with gun violence than seen on the surface. The only way to truly change course is to get to the core. We must un-lead America's consciousness. This is not peace and love, girlie man, flower power. This is not high minded moral indulgence, but a chorus for all the victims of violence that we've seen of late. It is time to re-calibrate and re-condition the psyche of our society.