Absent from the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, from the election thus far, and from the political discourse of this country in general.
What has been absent?
Ideas. Ideas have been absent. Strangely, and utterly, absent.
I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.
In all four debates, the candidates stuck to the issues. They talked about Benghazi, tax rates, and energy sources. They didn't talk about economic theory. They didn't talk about political philosophy. They didn't get ideological. They may disagree on everything else, but they seem to agree on this one thing: don't talk about ideas.
It's as if a secret treaty has been struck. It's as if someone convinced all of the cognoscenti surrounding both campaigns to advise their candidates to stay away, as far away as possible, from being perceived as ideological. It's dangerous to be perceived as ideological these days. Be perceived as practical. Stick to your talking points. Don't tell them what you really think and explain why you think it. If you do, they – the voters and the media – they'll laugh at you. They value practical leaders. Practical leaders that can sit down to have a practical discussion. That can gesticulate and talk past each other ad nauseam about 'the facts' and what 'the facts say', while firing one statistic after another into the no-man's-land of a debate with no agreed upon context.
When ideas have made an appearance in the campaign, it has been as part of a rehearsed political stump speech: vague, trite aphorisms calculated to pander to one demographic or another. Throw-away rhetoric, not a proper explanation of what they believe and an explanation of the rigorous process of reasoning whereby they arrived at those conclusions.
Where their ideas are absent, ours must be present. Let's get clear on what we believe first, then decide which candidate suits our ideas best.
Where Ideas Come From
Let's speak in metaphors.
An idea, divorced from a body of thought, from a philosophy, is like a ship without an anchor, or a plant without roots.
Ideas are like ants. They come from somewhere, and they never come alone. The colony they come from used to be called a 'philosophy', and it has lots of ideas that work together in harmony.
An idea is like a door frame. A political philosophy is like a house. A political philosophy is a body of thought, a body of ideas, that can't just be assembled randomly – a door here, a window there. It has to be carefully designed and constructed to have structural integrity. The ideas have to be consistent with each other, to fit together, in order for the rooms to be livable. Otherwise, the whole thing would collapse at the first sign of logical analysis.
Where do ideas come from? Ideas come from philosophy.
Philosophy comes from pondering The Big Questions - about life, ethics, human nature, society, economics, and government. Wrestle with them long enough, and The Big Questions lead to Answers. That, is philosophy.
That part of philosophy that deals with political questions is known as Political Philosophy.
Once, not long ago, not only candidates, but any citizen who wished to consider him- or herself 'well-educated', would read, think, and discuss political philosophy. Those were the days when the names of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Smith, Marx, Bastiat, Hayek and Keynes were not unfamiliar.
Each of these philosophers wrestled with The Big Questions:
What is the meaning of life? Is there an objective morality, a 'right' and 'wrong'? Are there such things as 'human rights'? If so, what are they, where do they come from, why should they be respected, and how should they be protected? What is the relationship between an individual and society? What is the role of government? Where does it derive its power, and how should it be structured? What are its limits, if any? How should be people governed? What makes a law 'good' or 'bad'? What are the principles by which a government should tax, regulate, and pass laws? How would an Ideal State function? And so on…
Each of these philosophers' writings acknowledged and built upon, either directly or indirectly, the answers to these questions of those who had come before. People used to call it The Great Conversation, because it provided the context whereby citizens could engage in productive political discourse.
They used to have conversations like this:
“Oh, I see. Then you agree with Rousseau, that civil society is a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak in order to maintain their power or wealth, and that this departure from our natural state of freedom is the fundamental origin of inequality that must be corrected by the State?”
“Not quite. I agree with Rousseau that… But dispute the notion that… My position on the matter is…”
“But good sir, this line of argument is inconsistent. Your first statement contradicts your second, in that it…”
Why have these conversations disappeared from the face of the earth? It is, to me, a sad omen. We would do well to bring them back.
Along these lines…
Emblematic of the flaws of our present generation, this election has become about two men, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It's not even about their ideas anymore, either, it's about Big Bird. In previous generations, the debate would spin around ideas.
When a politician would run for office, the citizens used to ask them not just to explain their positions on the various issues then in play, but to go further, to ask them about their ideas. They not only wanted to know their ideas, they wanted to know where their ideas came from. They wanted to understand their political philosophy and their philosophy on life in general. They expected the candidate to be able to provide some exegesis of, if not the texts themselves, at least the lines of argument that shaped their thinking, as well as how they planned to apply that thinking to the problems at hand.
The most recent example I can think of is Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech, A Time for Choosing (text or video), in which he manages to explain, succinctly and coherently, his core philosophy and ideas. Anybody who listened to him that night left with a fairly clear idea of what he believed, and how those beliefs would translate into policy.
For at least a century now, the fundamental political debate in America has been about where this nation should fall along a spectrum of socialism on the Left and free-market capitalism on the Right, with Progressives offering the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too alternative.
One would expect the political debate in 2012 to be waged along these lines, but it has not been. It has been waged issue-by-issue, and neither candidate has chosen to revisit the fundamental philosophical questions of government.
A brief ideological history of the United States
It's worth embarking on a brief ideological history of the United States as a way of framing the present Election.
To this day, FDR remains the farthest left President and Ronald Reagan the farthest right we've had in America.
FDR whole-heartedly embraced socialism and massive government intervention in the economy, but stopped somewhere short of communism, which at the time, was relatively new, if not as an idea, as an idea in-practice, and the Soviet Union was its Great Experiment. As that experiment went horribly wrong and became increasingly a threat to our existence, the country distanced itself from those ideas, although it never dismantled the new machinery of State that FDR had put in place. The traumatic experience of the Great Depression, and the popular understanding (libertarians argue, a profound mis-understanding, but nonetheless…) that The New Deal had turned the economy around, prevented anyone from actually rolling the clock back.
Reagan whole-heartedly embraced capitalism and the free market. He did not believe in monetary stimulus, raising interest rates sharply to bring inflation down and restore the value of the dollar. He did not believe in fiscal stimulus, he cut back on domestic spending. He stimulated the economy by cutting taxes, deregulating, and aggressively fighting inflation. In so doing, Reagan was rejecting what had become the consensus for an entire generation, upheld by both Republicans and Democrats in-office, about what the Federal Government was “supposed to do” when managing the economy out of a recession - increase spending and lower interest rates - following a classic, FDR-esque, Keynesian “demand-side” policy. Many mainstream economists ridiculed him then, and the likes of Paul Krugman ridicule him now, but a resurgent school of libertarian economic thought that provided the intellectual authority behind what has since become known as “supply-side” economics.
Robert Mundell is the father of supply-side economics and won a nobel prize for his work in the field. While advising the Kennedy administration as a young economist, he realized that the policy recommendations of his Keynesian colleagues were exactly backwards. When inflation picked up, they advised raising taxes. When growth slowed, they advised lowering interest rates. Instead, when inflation picked up, they should have raised interest rates, and when growth slowed, they should have lowered taxes.
In an ideological history of the United States, FDR's presidency fundamentally altered the role, scope, and powers of the State, which became the post-war consensus, and then Reagan began the process of reversing that course and returning to a government more aligned with its traditional constitutional role.
Like FDR, Reagan's ideas had a lasting effect. Every president since has paid homage to them. But while a rhetorical “consensus” seemed to last for a long time, what is rarely discussed is that his successors quietly over-turned his policies almost immediately. Bush Sr. raised taxes. So did Clinton, who also raised spending, although a booming economy (who or what deserves the credit for this is up for debate) allowed him to balance the budget. Greenspan began a policy of monetary expansion at the Federal Reserve. George W. Bush lowered taxes, but he dramatically increased both domestic and military spending, while continuing the monetary expansion.
The Progressive Alternative?
In 2008, Barack Obama ran as a 'progressive' candidate, promising an end to an era of partisanship, and the beginning of an era where free-market capitalism would co-operate with the government to deliver outcomes for the public good.
That sounds nice. The question is, is this a real ideological alternative? Can we have our cake and eat it too?
Progressives think of themselves as a new breed with novel ideas that will transcend party lines to solve age-old debates. They reject the classic battle lines of Left and Right. Obama wanted to remake the political landscape like FDR and Reagan, but by redrawing battle lines around a new progressive agenda focused on health care, energy, and the environment.
Ultimately, though, choices had to be made. As the Obama administration increased spending, it came at the expense of an ever-larger deficit, that has to be paid for either by increasing taxes or debasing the currency. While the spending may or may not be well-structured and necessary (not arguing that point here), not every “investment” pays off (see: Solyndra et al).
So, in the end, the Progressive democrat cannot escape the Left-Right spectrum, and in practice, governs from the left (farther left than Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, or Lula de Silva). In 2012, the President's re-election campaign reflects this shift, and his rhetoric has become increasingly populist.
When you meet a progressive, don't expect anything all-too-different from a traditional Keynesian socialist that believes in redistribution, intervention, and government institutions as the primary drivers of change and progress in society, other than perhaps an understanding that capitalism does ultimately pay the bills.
Smartly enough, though, progressives hate being called socialists, because the socialist brand is not in-style. They prefer to associate themselves with the classic big government issues - the environment, health care, education, energy, and so forth - but don't want the labels. They want to be seen as capable of managing these issues better than their predecessors, endowed with new insights and ideas.
An unholy consensus
This should be deeply concerning to us.
Take the financial crisis of 2008, for example.
For the most part, both Republicans and Democrats felt that the government should step in to save the system. Their stance on “the issue” was, at least in its broad strokes, identical.
So one might assume that two candidates, debating this issue, had identical economic philosophies as well.
But, in reality, the convergence is, at best, incidental - an exception that proved the rule that their two policy trajectories would, over time, lead in very different, if not nearly opposite, directions.
These moments of unholy consensus prove fatal when candidates do not clearly differentiate themselves ideologically.
Without demanding ideological clarity and debate from our candidates, we allow practical similarities of opinion on the issues immediately confronting us to obscure the differences on the fundamental governing principles that matter.
There are several complex causes for the crash of the financial markets in 2008 that sent the global economy into a recession we're still not out of. Most of them were both predictable and preventible, some by the banks, and some by policy-makers.
The Left might argue that the crash was a result of deregulation and “unbridled capitalism”, and that not just the banks, but other big businesses that provide essential goods and services to the public, should be closely managed. That, in order to have a more equitable economy moving forward, the government needs to step in to “invest” (hear: spend) in programs that will create jobs for low- and middle-class workers, and create safety nets so that people are protected from the worst.
The Right might argue that the crash shows that government programs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac helped to create the problem, and that re-regulation is not the solution, but rather streamlining regulations to focus on what really matters and updating them to take new credit instruments and market conditions into account. The fix for financial markets, then, is not to put an end to excess of so-called “greed”, but to make sure that markets are more transparent and incentives are better aligned: so that shareholders, for example, can take “selfish” preventative measures to pressure their board of directors to ensure that executives have tight-enough controls on risk. The solution for the economy is not to over-extend the credit of the nation to fund spending programs that dramatically increase the dependency of people on the government, but to increase competitiveness and stimulate economic growth by doing the opposite: decreasing taxes and spending, bringing the budget back into surplus, and taxes, decrease spending dramatically, run a budget surplus, and focusing monetary policy exclusively on curbing inflation.
These differences should have emerged when the candidates debated the economy. Shockingly, they did not. Nobody really debated the cause of the crash and how best to respond to it. This was a mistake.
Snobbery and Fear Mongering
Instead of discussing ideas, or even the big issues, like how to respond to the financial crisis, this election has been about snobbery and fear mongering.
Both sides have erected straw-men of their opponents, then demonize the caricatures.
Democrats say that Republicans are run by a bunch of religious wackos who want to push grandma over a cliff, regulate women's bodies, cut taxes only for the rich, let schools fail, let the auto industry fail, let greedy oil companies make more money instead of investing in clean technologies, let businesses pollute the environment, and cut FEMA so that the government can't respond to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
Republicans say Democrats are run by a bunch of union workers and closet communists who are willing to let Navy SEALs and ambassadors die to win elections, who want to raise taxes on everybody, bankrupt the country, spend public money on their pet programs and political friends, and have bureaucrats regulate and manage the economy.
In some sense, many of these accusations may be rooted in valid criticisms, but they are delivered in a mean, angry, and disrespectful way.
Snobbery doesn't advance either side's cause. Both sides have philosophies that draw on long and rich intellectual traditions. It is far better to spend time and money making and responding to thoughtful arguments, than to demonize an opponent.
In one of my favorite political essays, The Seen and the Unseen, the author, 19th century French senator Frederic Bastiat, makes the point that just because someone disagrees with a policy, does not mean that they disagree with the stated goals of the policy.
The goals of policy are always positive. The Left does not spend, and the Right does not cut spending, because they believe it will make society worse off. The Right does not oppose environmental regulation because they are against the environment. Conversely, the Left does not advance environmental regulation because they are against business.
There are rare circumstances when an opponent's motives really do come into question, but those arguments should always be made deliberately and delicately. They should not become the norm. It isn't conducive to a healthy body politic. And leaders should lead by example.
In politics, there are ideas, and there are politicians. It's important to remember the difference, and the relationship, between the two.
Ideas are pure. They are our vision for the future. They are our answers for the way our country ought to be. The policies we ought to have in place. The values and principles and philosophies that we ought to govern by.
Then there are politicians. Politicians are people. Flawed at best. They are our emissaries. We elect them to positions in our government because we believe they will represent us, and our ideas.
It's easy to get burnt-out on politics, because of politicians. They are not pure. Even those who “stand for” your ideas, will say things you believe in, and do things you don't. They may pay lip-service to all the ideas you believe in, but not have the talent and experience, or character and guts, to follow through on them.
It's okay to get burnt-out on politicians. It's important not to burn out on ideas. In the High Seas of election season, don't lose sight of True North.
Ideas point to True North.
Politics exists because people disagree about True North. They disagree about both ideas and politicians. Otherwise, this election would just be about governance, about who is better qualified to “manage” the country better. But it's about more than that. It's about what sort of country we want, in the first place. Specifically, it's about the role of government in society.
Behind every disagreement in this election has been lurking a larger Disagreement. Taxes, health care, and energy are issues, but they are not The Issue. The Issue, as I see it, is whether fairness brings freedom, or freedom is fairness.
Democrats believe, by and large, that fairness brings freedom. Republicans believe, by and large, that freedom is fairness.
Those positions represent two sharply contrasting visions for what sort of place America should be and which direction the government should take to get there. I would like to discuss both positions and then make my own position clear.
If fairness brings freedom…
Earlier today, I got into a political discussion with a friend of mine on Facebook. She is intelligent, well-educated, and articulate. She expressed the classic position for those who believe that fairness brings freedom:
“More egalitarian societies produce higher levels of wellbeing… There needs to be an equal level of opportunity. We need some degree of progressive taxation to rebalance the injustice that has a poor kid from the ghetto never able to achieve the same as a white man from a family of privilege.”
As best I can tell from numerous conversations, people like her believe that in order for people to have freedom, the government needs to create an “equal level of opportunity” for everybody. She puts fairness first, and trusts that freedom will follow.
To do this, the government needs to redistribute outcomes. The answer is: tax the wealthy to pay for free government education, subsidized health care, and other programs.
By making society more fair, the argument goes, it will not only become more “just”, but everyone will be happier, and we will all be more free, because we will be equipped to make what we want of our lives.
The underlying idea is that as human beings, we have a right to certain things: we have a right to health care, we have a right to education, and so on.
This is a position that FDR and Obama would agree with.
If freedom is fairness…
There are those who reject the notion that human beings can have a right to anything as absurd. They argue that individuals have no natural claim to each other's, or “society's”, property or services. Instead, they define rights as freedoms from: freedom from violence, freedom from theft, freedom from oppression.
They believe that the government's role is limited to establishing freedom, and that, by definition, a free society is fair. Fairness, for them, means living in a free society that guarantees them the same protection under the law as everyone else. Given that, they believe that it is not the government's role to worry about or manipulate outcomes in order to make them more “just” or “fair”, as in “equal”.
Inequality is part of the natural order of the universe, and they leave it alone. To them, the important thing is that a free society is the sort of place where, if a person works hard, it is possible to succeed by creating value, value that will be rewarded by the market on the basis of its merits, based on the supply of and demand for that type of value.
In this view, you are responsible for providing for your own education and healthcare, because no individual has a natural right to these services.
Nobody can force you to help others, by taxing you, and giving it to them. If you do, it is voluntary. Similarly, when you do succeed, your success can not be claimed by anyone else. It is your own. Because you earned it on your own, you will not feel guilty or indebted to anything as impersonal as “society”. Those people you have to thank you paid, with the exception of personal benefactors and friends who may have supported you along the way. At least you can thank them to their face.
As for that poor kid from the ghetto, there is no “injustice” to “rebalance”. Government hand-outs only create a sense of entitlement and dependence. America has had plenty of those kids who have gone on to greatness. Steve Jobs was the orphaned son of a Syrian immigrant, raised by working class parents. This immigrant from El Salvador did it, with restaurants in Washington, D.C. My uncle came to this country penniless after the Iranian revolution, he started out in the oil fields of North Dakota, then bought an ice cream truck, and now owns one of the largest ice cream distribution businesses in the country, with over one hundred employees.
For two hundred years, immigrants have chosen to come to this country, because it was the land of freedom and opportunity, where anything was possible in a meritocracy where the market rewards people who create value.
Freedom means opportunity, and opportunity is fairness. “Opportunity” is not something you are given, it is something you have the freedom to pursue.
This is the position that Reagan attempted to restore. This is in-line with the understanding of freedom the Founders had when they created this nation. It was to be the Great Experiment in self-reliance, individual responsibility, and limited government.
What do you believe, how would you govern?
I think that before an election it is a worthy intellectual exercise and thought experiment to pretend to be one of the candidates.
If you were running for President, what would be your political philosophy and how would you govern the nation? What would be your version of the Ideal State?
I believe that freedom is fairness. I am one of a nearly extinct political species known as a classical liberal. Libertarians and fiscal conservatives are my nearest relatives. My political philosophy was strongly influenced by John Locke, the Founders, the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics, Frederic Bastiat, and Ayn Rand. Here is how I would govern…
The role of government ought to be limited. It has to perform a small set of tasks, and perform them excellently. Certainly, much better than it has been. Those tasks include, first and foremost, defending the country from external threats, securing our trade and other national interests abroad by negotiating agreements that promote peace and prosperity abroad, protecting citizens at home from violence and theft, responding to natural disasters, administering justice through courts that uphold the constitution, prevent abuses, protect our rights (freedoms from, not to), and enforce lawful contracts, etc., passing laws that create streamlined regulatory environments that ensure that markets function properly in a way that aligns the selfish interests of various stakeholders - consumers, shareholders, directors, management, employees, etc. - towards the willing exchanges of value that create wealth, to manage the creation and maintenance of infrastructure and parks on public land, to enact a sensible tax code, to ensure that voting happens smoothly, and other basic, core functions of government.
Those are the essential tasks.
There are very few problems which the private sector, with all its dynamic ingenuity, cannot solve. As the size of government decreases, the responsibilities of the private sector can increase to pick up additional burdens.
Every non-essential program on which the government is currently spending money, the ultimate goal has to be to phase the government out while phasing in a well-structured private-sector solution. The first step is to get the government out of owning and operating programs, and let it just fund them. The next step is to create conditions whereby if the private sector “steps up” to take on more responsibilities, the public sector can “back down” to give them up.
Education is the perfect example. Let's move to a voucher system. The government will continue to fund education, but it will no longer own and operate schools, directly pay teacher's salaries, or set curriculum standards. This will unleash a wave of innovation as entrepreneurs found education companies to compete for the $10-15K a year that each student will be worth. To compete, they will innovate on the curriculum and do everything else they can think of to improve results. Parents will choose, and if they wish, supplement the cost out-of-pocket. An ecosystem of supporting products and services will be born around the new industry, including companies that will provide ratings and reviews, like Yelp or Flixter, except for education.
The same goes for all of our poverty alleviation programs. If we are going to spend money on this, let's start by creating a model for private (probably non-profit) organizations with a track record of reducing poverty to compete for and manage those dollars.
The same goes for NASA. If we're going to spend money going to Mars, let's set up a massive X Prize to do it, and let the private space industry go to work. The same goes for the NEH. Kickstarter, anyone? The same goes for social security: is there a private sector alternative to the pension system that I could opt send my money to? And medicare.
Apply this process to all domestic spending and entitlement programs. in order to create efficiencies, use technology to do more with less. Interfacing with government services should be as simple and as accessible as using an iPhone app.
On taxes, a simple progressive flat tax, with no loopholes or exemptions, could finally dispose of an archaic IRS tax code that is thousands of pages long, which makes compliance impossible, and which rewards those with more friends in Washington or those with a larger budget for fancy accountants. I propose 5% for people earning under $50K (everybody should pay in to the system), 10% for people earning up to $100K, 15% for people earning up to $250K, and 25% for people earning over $250K.
On monetary policy, the federal reserve would stop pouring gasoline on wet leaves by contracting the money supply and raising interest rates, focus all efforts on decreasing inflationary risk and squeezing bad credit out of the system.
Economic growth is the number one issue for me in this election, and social issues are a distraction, a red-herring. The pie chart of importance for me is 75% economic (including health care and education), 15% national security, and 10% social issues and “other stuff”, if that.
The Republican brand has been badly damaged recently by its positions on social issues, and if it hopes to revive itself, it needs to change course.
On gay marriage, change the debate. Instead of getting the government into gay marriage, how about getting the government out of heterosexual marriage? There is a strong libertarian argument to be made that the government has no business defining, sanctioning, and regulating an institution such as marriage, which derives its meaning from faith and religion. As far as the State is concerned, any “Significant Other” should do for a Civil Union for tax purposes, visitation rights, and such.
Adoption rights are often cited by conservatives as an argument against legalizing homosexual unions, presumably because they feel that a child would be better raised by a heterosexual couple, and perhaps because they fear sexual abuse, etc. Given that there are not enough families for orphans, it is hard to argue that a child would be, in fact, worse off being taken care of by gay parents. Ground for compromise could probably be found by allowing children a choice, when they are old enough, to either stay in that environment, switch into foster care, or attempt to find heterosexual couple that will adopt them. The reverse would also have to be true, however, for it to be fair. As far as fears about abuse, pre-mature exposure to sexual issues, etc., I think that this needs to be monitored and regulated. Ultimately, objective studies should show plenty of results, either way, and then, instead of discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, we can discriminate on the basis of results, and improve policy.
As far as abortion is concerned, Republicans should drop their insistence on repealing Roe vs. Wade and “banning abortion” or even the more moderate stance of “letting states decide”. It should not be a legislative question but a judicial one, as it deals with the rights, both of the mother, and the unborn.
As a libertarian, raised by conservatives, but with an overwhelmingly liberal peer group, I feel that I am sympathetic to both sides. I do not want the government to have the power to “regulate a woman's body” or impose the beliefs of the majority by force. Conversely, if the unborn fetus is indeed a human life, then the courts have an obligation to protect it.
It is important for conservatives to remember that a candidate's position on abortion has nothing to do with whether he or she personally believes it is right or wrong, and the same goes for voters. The fact is that regardless of your personal views on the morality of abortion, whether informed by faith or not, whether you believe it is right or wrong, should not be imposed on all of society. It is a moral issue without an “obvious” answer, either way. There are legitimate arguments on either side. Ultimately, should it be up to the majority to decide? I think a strong case can and should be made that it should be up to the woman to decide.
If you personally believe that abortion is wrong, then persuade women not to do it, and prevent the problem with contraception and birth control in the first place. Our country embraces free speech for this reason.
An exception should be made, I think, to pass legislation banning abortions in the third trimester, other than for medical safety. By then, a woman has had ample time to make a decision, and there is something very obviously different to most people, I think, between a fetus the size of a peanut and an almost-formed baby, and we should, in that regard, at least, respect the sanctity of human life. Before that, it is a woman's right to choose.
On the environment, I think it is important for the Republican party, if it seeks the moderate vote, to make clear that it believes that the government has a very important role to play in being a steward of our environment, parks, and natural resources. Libertarians are not anarchists, and we fully acknowledge that markets benefit from well designed and enforced regulations, and that there is such a thing as the Tragedy of the Commons. It makes sense to regulate pollution. It makes sense to regulate food production and marketing. It is foolish, however, to spend incredible amounts of public money in loans, loan guarantees, and investments to subsidize green energy companies (there are better ways to promote new energy technologies), and dangerous to create powerful bureaucracies with sweeping powers to enforce measures that are too broad and too punitive. I am particularly concerned by many measures that democrats have promoted such as cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, which I think will make business far harder and more expensive to conduct, and will give the government the power to regulate almost anything they want in the name of the environment. This, I think, is a position that people can get behind.
The choice before us
Once you've decided what you believe in and why, it is easier to judge which candidate aligns best.
Just because the candidates have not talked in-depth about their ideas, it does not mean that they don't have them. They do. They obfuscate in order to appeal to so-called “independent” voters in swing states, but take their track-records and rhetoric, especially what they say when talking to their base, read between the lines a bit, and extrapolate. It doesn't leave us with as clear a picture about their plans for the next four years as we'd like, but that is the Looking Glass. That is what we have to go on, and as much as we should complain about their lack of directness about it, we have to make a decision on Tuesday.
Therefore, I endorse…
I endorse Mitt Romney for President of the United States in 2012.
He is by no means perfect, and we do not agree on every issue, but I know that he will decrease the regulatory and tax burdens, strengthen the government's financials, increase energy production, and roll back the scope of government through initiatives like vouchers.
He is a better alternative than the President, who has created new entitlements when we can't pay for our old ones, and has been punitive in tone and action to business. He has increased the regulatory burden, prevented drilling, and most importantly, been a Keynesian. He credits his stimulus package for preventing an economic depression, but he doesn't understand how supply-siders would have done it differently, and why it would of worked. He would never go against his base to transition the education system to a voucher model.
I would far rather elect a President who thinks that because 47% of the electorate benefit from some federal program, they can not have a fully objective view on an issue, than a President who has, at times, antagonized “greedy” businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Winning the Peace
I wrote this post for two reasons.
The first is that I have been “consuming” politics this entire election season. I have read scores upon scores of news stories, been dragged into debates around the office, and watched all the Presidential debates.
I don't like to be a taker. I believe in being a “net exporter of thinking” and so I thought I'd frame and synthesize tomorrow's election to bring a sense of closure.
The second is that I care about this country deeply and I love its people, particularly my family and friends, and I want them, and myself, to have the best government possible. I believe this country was founded on a political culture that encouraged active participation and debate, and so I feel it is a sacred duty to express my opinion. Other than that, I have nothing to gain by it, and quite a lot of friendships to lose according to a recent poll, which said that “just over one-out-of-four Americans (27%) say the upcoming election has negatively affected their personal relationship with a friend or family member.” I have tried to take a measured approach, although I don't claim to be unbiased by any means. Quite unlike most of our national media, I might add.
This has been, in my opinion, the World War One of Presidential elections: both sides exhausting resources and energy in an interminable, ugly struggle. Why do we fight? What do we stand for? What will we gain by victory or lose by defeat? Leaders provide no justifications, because soldiers ask for none. We fight because we're English (or German), Republican (or Democrat), and our Queen (or Kaiser), has called upon our ancient loyalties, hatreds, and fears to summon us to the Front to do our part. War is terrible, they say, but inevitable. They make empty promises about “life after the war”. We accept our lot. Accept, and sacrifice. Into the trenches. Sheep to slaughter.
An ugly war, that led to an uglier peace. Those who died, a Lost Generation. Those who survived, jaded by the emptiness of victory. Those who lost, burdened by reparations payments they could not possibly afford. Everyone, desperate to get back to “the way things were”, willfully ignoring how the world had forever changed, rebuilding on bad foundations, a Structure that would not long last.
Let's hope whomever wins on Tuesday, having won the electoral war, wins the governing peace.
I do not believe in jobs. I wish fewer existed, not more. The concept is outdated and needs to be replaced.
I believe in opportunities.
What is a 'job'?
A job is a routine set of tasks, processes, or operations which one is employed to do. These responsibilities can be documented and taught to new employees. The results are predictable and reproducible.
That's my definition. I think it does justice to both the meanings associated with the word in our popular culture as well as to its historical contexts.
Let me be clear. Not everyone who is employed has a job.
If you are not a human machine, you do not have a job. If your work can't be put into a manual, you do not have a job. If they can't teach the new guy to produce the same results, you do not have a job. If technology can't replace you, now or ever, you do not have a job.
You have an opportunity.
An opportunity culture
Jobs have been on my mind a lot this week. We just launched our new 'jobs' page at Everest. Except, none of us wanted to call them jobs. So we called them opportunities. Check them out: http://evr.st/opportunities
We have an opportunity culture at Everest.
I am employed by Everest, but the majority of my work, or at the very least, the most important and differentiating aspects of it, are not routine, and could not be documented or taught to someone else so as to reproduce the same results in a predictable way.
Were I, someday, to be forced to step aside, and this opportunity given to someone else, it would not be a 'replacement', in the sense that they would be able to do what I do, in the way that I do it. Even if that person were more capable, more experienced, and outperformed me in every way, delivering better results, making more of the opportunity, and creating more success for the company, it would not be like replacing (or upgrading) a part on a BMW.
That's because I bring myself, all of myself - all of my energy, creativity, passion and drive, all of my personality, beliefs, tastes and perspectives, all of my experiences, talents, skills, relationships and networks, all that makes me unique and original as an individual – to the work that I do. It requires emotional labor.
I am compensated in both salary and equity in order to align my interests so that I am fully incentivized to devote myself – all of myself – to maximize the opportunity I have been given to make the company succeed.
The same is true for my colleagues. We have done our best at Everest to create opportunities, not jobs. It is my hope that they approach their work as such: as a bespoke suit, uniquely their own, or a blank canvas, to be made something of. As we grow, we want to create more (and better) opportunities, not more jobs.
When you create jobs, you have to create rules. You need to be in the office by a certain time. You get so many sick and vacation days. You can only interact with your co-workers in certain ways. You can't… You can't…
When you create opportunities, you have as few rules as possible. When everyone feels a strong sense of ownership, you can replace all the rules with freedom. Freedom means that you can make decisions for yourself that pertain to your own happiness and responsibilities, instead of having someone else tell you what to do. Ownership means having incentives aligned so that a group of rational individuals can agree to work together to pursue the same outcome and trust that each other will freely make optimal choices in everyone's best interests.
This blog is an interesting example. This is my personal blog. I am not writing on behalf of the company here. These views are my own. They do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. But yet I have the freedom not just to spend time writing, but to publish a post like this, on a sensitive and controversial topic, and express my views.
Could I abuse my freedom by publishing something that would reflect badly on us or damage our brand or company? Yes, I could. But my team trusts that I won't. They know I am rational and responsible. They know I will weigh the consequences of my actions.
We don't see this sort of activity as a liability, but an asset. It's the sort of value that gets brought to the table when you allow individuals to bring all of themselves to work on an opportunity.
In a job, it's the opposite. You keep your personal and professional life separate in every way. You don't mix your relationships or recreation. When you express yourself publicly, you have to explicitly disclaim it as a personal opinion. In fact, you're probably discouraged from it entirely. You have two phones and two computers, one for 'work' and one that's 'personal'.
When you're working on an opportunity, these distinctions are meaningless. Everything is personal. Everything is professional. Everything is work. Everything is play. You are a whole person. All is one.
So far, at Everest we've managed to preserve our freedom. So long as we cherish it, we won't abuse it, and won't lose it. I would be lying if I said we have not struggled with it. Somebody always has to shoulder the responsibilities. In a culture of jobs, everyone is told which responsibilities to take on, and as they work to fulfill them, they are closely managed and watched. In a culture of opportunities, everyone is free to take on responsibilities and manage themselves.
We are a team of individuals. That's our solution to an age-old paradox. Most organizations, like the military, demand self-effacement – you must sacrifice your identity as an individual in deference to the identity of the group. Instead, if you find your identity and realize your potential as an individual, express your creativity through your work, and put your stamp on the Opportunity, then you will become a pillar of strength for your team.
To build all that we want to build, to achieve all that we want to achieve, no matter how excellently we perform as individuals, we can not do it alone. We depend on one another to take initiative, to follow through, to deliver our utmost best. Every time we deliver, it is an affirmation of commitment, an investment in trust in each other. Trust that as professionals, we have the self-respect to have high standards and seek to raise them.
If we did not share the same vision, or drive to make the company succeed, or want this to impact as many lives as possible, or care about it representing the very best of our art as craftsmen, then it would not work.
A brief history of 'jobs'
Jobs, at least in the modern sense of the word, began to appear in the Industrial Revolution. A 'capitalist' would design a process, from start to finish, that began with inputs, and resulted in outputs. Inputs cost money, with some expenses fixed and some variable, but because the process added value to the output, the market was willing to pay an even higher price for it – high enough to cover the costs and turn a profit. If you owned a factory, or even a hamburger joint, you made capital investments in the facility and the equipment, and then you needed labor to actually operate the assembly line. That was the model.
And it worked! Before the industrial revolution, economies were predominantly agrarian, and almost all available labor had to work on farms in order to produce enough food to feed everyone. Then factories started producing equipment that made all of that work unnecessary, so that farms could produce more food with fewer people. That, in turn, freed up labor to do something else productive, like working in a factory. As people left the countryside for the cities, something very significant happened: they replaced their feudal obligations with formal employment. They took a 'job'.
Now, so far, this is progress. Reflect that all that has been accomplished in the last 150 years since this Revolution began. From horse-drawn carts to supersonic jets. It's incredible!
But, there's a problem. Not everyone likes being 'freed up' to do something more productive when capitalists and their technology make their jobs suddenly redundant. When Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, for example, it threatened to put thousands of people out of work, so they took to the streets in riots and smashed every machine they could get their hands on.
Those people called themselves the Luddites. They lost, the machines took their jobs, and they moved on. Today, we use that word as an adjective to describe an ignorant person who doesn't understand technology. But maybe they were on to something…
Capitalism replaces jobs with technology. In the Short Run, it may invent new jobs to make those people productive again. But in the Long Run, there will be no jobs left – it will replace them all.
In the next section, I'd like to convince you that this is not a bad thing, but a good thing. Such a good thing, actually, that it is hard to distinguish with 'progress' in general.
An opportunity economy
It bothers me that this election has become about jobs. Both candidates can't stop using the word, or talking about how they want to create millions more! Instead, I wish they'd focus on economic growth and competitiveness, so that we can lose jobs to technology, and replace them with the sorts of employment opportunities that require individuals to live up to their full potential to create unique and irreplaceable value, that can't be either outsourced or automated.
We compete in a global economy. Everything that can be outsourced, will be outsourced. Everything that can be automated, will be automated.
Let me explain.
Last Thursday evening, I went to a party at a hardware incubator called Lemnos Labs in San Francisco's South of Market district. Guess who was catering? An automatic hamburger making machine.
A brilliant young engineer has spent the last nine months building a prototype of something so disruptive that it will put millions of people around the world out of a job.
It takes ground meat, dough, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and condiments as inputs, and through a series of conveyors, it cooks the meat, toasts the buns, and assembles the burger – perfectly. It even makes the fries.
They've already got McDonalds beat on quality, and now they're trying to match Shake Shack, Super Duper, In-N-Out, and the other mid-scale burger chains.
Once they raise a substantial round of funding and build the right team, they'll improve the design and performance and manufacture these machines en masse. They'll make it smaller, faster, and better looking. They'll make it better and better and better. Like Apple's done with the iPhone.
How many people prepare food on any given shift at an In-N-Out? Five? Ten? More? How many shifts are there in a day? Five? Ten? More? By my calculations, a burger joint that installed these machines would be able to let go of anywhere from 25 to 100 employees – each.
If someone out there's working on this, then someone out there's probably working on how to put all the baristas at Starbucks out of work too. How many jobs is that?
The United States Postal Service still employs 600,000 people. If it wasn't subsidized by the government, it would have gone out of business a long time ago because of email and the internet.
How many maids and butlers have household technologies like the refrigerator, microwave, and washing machines replaced? How many secretaries have Google Calendar and Apple's Siri replaced?
'White collar' jobs aren't safe either. Software engineering is a great example. New software is constantly being written and made available, either through paid or open-source licenses, that does parts of an engineer's work for him or her. They used to have to do it themselves, if it was possible to do at all, but now they can just drop in somebody else's code or use somebody else's platform. If you're a great engineer, this isn't threatening. There will always be work for you to do. But if you're mediocre, maybe it is.
Another great example is cloud computing. Ten years ago, even small companies had to maintain their own servers. Now everything is hosted on cloud platforms. How many IT jobs were lost in that transition?
This, all of this, is progress.
The reason why we don't like it is because we're not prepared for it.
Even if we had the right economic policies, even if entrepreneurs were creating opportunities left and right, they would quickly run out of people to fill them. That's why they say that inequality is increasing in this country. Because there aren't enough people capable of making something of an opportunity, and when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. The capable people cost a lot more than the people who want 'jobs'.
We're not prepared for it, because our education system looks like an assembly line. Our schools haven't changed much since World War II. You walk in straight lines. You sit in rows and columns. You fill in bubbles. You pick one of four possible choices on a test. The whole thing is designed to prepare people for jobs, not opportunities.
Our politics haven't changed much either. After World War II, the United States had such a competitive lead on manufacturing that the average blue collar factory worker could afford a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a television, modern appliances, and so on, and retire at sixty with a pension. For a post-war golden era that lasted for decades, we enjoyed prosperity and growth.
In a future where robots do all of our jobs – that is, all of our routine operations, processes, and tasks, from transportation, to manufacturing, to computing – traditional blue and white collar labor will be completely unnecessary.
Now all the voters are clamoring that they want their jobs back. Now all the politicians are blaming their favorite scapegoats, either billionaires and big businesses or China, and promising them that they'll do something about it. But nobody wants to tell them the truth: Gone are the days! Those jobs are gone. They're not coming back. Never again will a job be so over-compensated.
The answer is not to tax the producers' earnings to give back to the consumers so that they can buy the producers' goods. That economic model is silly nonsense and wishful thinking. Sadly, it's been tried before, and it didn't work.
Rather, the answer is to recognize that to return to prosperity, we have to become human again.
Becoming human again
I began by saying that I do not believe in jobs. What a curious thing to say, isn't it? Don't believe? What is there to believe in? Isn't that like saying that you don't believe in trees or clouds? It's one thing to say that you want less of something and more of something else, but it's another thing entirely to say that you don't believe in it at all.
Let me take this argument one step further.
I find the whole concept of a 'job', at least in a modern developed country, to not only be outdated, but to be perverse, offensive, and revolting.
Golly, that's a strong statement. But I stand by it. Here's what I mean…
The Golden Age of manufacturing, which I alluded to above, gave to society a false sense of security – “job” security (my, what an awful phrase) – and a dangerous dependence, as on a drug. It left us with an enduring image of a 'normal' lifestyle in America that everyone is entitled to if they basically stick to the rules. It set the standards and expectations for a 'normal' workday, a 'normal' wage, a 'normal' level of comfort, leisure, and free-time, and for a 'normal' amount of luxury and prosperity (two cars in every garage, etc.).
Thinking that the lifestyle could go on forever was wishful thinking. That's not what bothers me. What really gets me, what I can't quite grasp, is how we ever convinced ourselves is that the job itself was desirable and worth having.
We were human machines! We stood in lines or sat in desks doing the same things every day. Machines did some of the work and we did the things that we hadn't invented machines to do yet.
It is not that I cannot appreciate the genius that went into designing these processes. It is not that I find manual or repetitive labor beneath us. If that's all you have open to you, if that's the only way you can provide for your needs, there is nothing dishonorable in taking a job.
What is perverse, however, is stopping there, planting the flag, and calling our journey complete. Take a job, if you must, but move on as quickly as you can!
I feel like shaking everybody, looking into their eyes, and crying:
Have you forgotten what you are? You are a human being. You have eyes! You have ears! You have a magnificent body that's capable of so much. You have a brain that's more powerful than any supercomputer known to man. You are capable of imagining things that don't exist yet, and bringing them into existence. You can read and write and learn and communicate with your fellow humans. You can appreciate and create art. All the wonders of the universe are yours to discover. There are no limits to what you do, none.
Yet you waste away your days and weeks and years, your precious time here on this earth, your one life, here? Your eyes deceive you. You are not in an office behind a computer, nor even a factory standing in a line, but in a prison, fashioned by your own mind. Who imposed these limits on your mind? Who said “go here, and no further?” You have, of your own choosing, accepted the lot of a slave. Not only accepted it, but demanded it of society as a right. A right to a job, you say. You mean, a right to turn off your brain, and doze through life in comfort.
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! This is a wide world, full of many wild things and landscapes of astonishing beauty for you to behold. You have settled for a mediocre routine, passing up all the glories and magnificence of the existence that is your birthright. You are gorging yourself on porridge and slop, when a feast lies before you. Take and eat!
From 1850 - 2000, the world needed jobs done by humans. Today, we need far less. Very soon, we may not need any. And that is a good thing. Because it will force us to wean ourselves off of this dehumanizing dependency.
Think about Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci never held a job. He was always pursuing some opportunity. In the 15th century, in a life that lasted just sixty years, this man designed tanks, submarines, kites, and helicopters before the technology existed to actually manufacture them. He cut open cadavers and began modern study of anatomy. He turned everything around him into an object of study and scientific inquiry through his sketches and notes. He made himself a student of human behavior, botany, cartography, architecture, and more. He was a great artist. He was a consultant to kings, all of the monarchs of Western Europe sought him out. It is said that in the kitchens of their palaces he designed assembly lines that produces delicacies that amazed guests at feasts. And more and more.
When you comprehend the full scope of the accomplishment of a life like this, you have a choice to make. Will you call him a freak? An aberration? A statistical outlier? An extreme exception? A superhuman? Or, will you recognize him for what he was: a fellow human being, just like you or I?
That's what the Renaissance was about – a rediscovering what it meant to be human. Reclaiming the 'normal' from the depths of serfdom, and dubbing someone like Leonardo as its new standard bearer.
The great and timeless symbol for what I am attempting to express is Da Vinci's sketch of the Vitruvian Man. That's what inspired the icon I chose for my blog, which you see on the left.
There's no reason why every healthy person living in a free and developed country in 2012, with access to all our technology and resources, cannot be a little Leonardo, achieving new heights of greatness and accomplishment.
I have hope. What makes this country great is that it is founded on a recognition that the birthright of all men is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of opportunity are one and the same concept.
I envision a society of artists, in the true and full sense of that word. A society of individuals who create and produce. A society of people do the sorts of things, and create the sorts of things, and solve the sorts of problems that could never be outsourced or automated. The minds that create the technologies that our civilization is built on and that have lifted us all up from the driving the ox and the plough.
I believe that if we abandon jobs in favor of opportunities, meeting someone as magnificently human Leonardo Da Vinci can become a common occurrence, the sort of thing you'll come to expect as you walk down the street.
You have ideas. A vision is an idea that has you. When the possessive relationship goes in reverse, it would feel like a betrayal to walk away, and it becomes your duty to bring it forth. With your waking eyes, you cease to just see the world as it is, and you begin to see it the way it could be. Making your vision real would transform the world into a place of such beauty that you must make it so. Every day you labor to incarnate it, to let it manifest. It becomes your Muse; you feel compelled to give it voice and expression. You are the clam, and it is the sand that festers inside of you, until you produce a pearl. It is your mistress, your secret passion, your crazed obsession, your Great Discontent. You live in its service. Your mind, body, and force are its instruments. You will not be fulfilled until it is fulfilled. It is your calling. What hardship, rejection, and sacrifice are you not willing to endure for it to survive and to succeed?
Any vision powerful enough to do this to you, can also do this to others. You just have to help them see what you see. You become an evangelist. You say, “drop your nets and follow me!” to talented and influential people. You have a way of getting people's attention and convincing them that this should be their highest priority. That it is bigger than them. That it commands their time, their money, their genius.
A vision has an air of destiny, a whiff of inevitability. You perceive it as the coming consequence of major trends you've perceived emerging in technology and society. It will happen, with or without you. If you don't do it, someone else will. Ironically, that's why it has so much power over you.
Maybe Caesar saw that the Republic was bound to fall, and an empire to take its place, but he wanted it to be The Empire, and it to bear his image. In the same way, maybe Steve Jobs saw that computers, these huge devices that filled rooms, would become small, and personal, and take on various form factors, and be used for an ever widening set of business and personal applications. Maybe he saw, in the 1970s, some glimmer of the modern tablet and the smartphone. Would the world have built empires of personal computers and tablets and smartphones without him? Yes, undoubtedly. But instead of just any technology empire, the world has his empire, the Apple empire, with the unique vision he gave it: of technology as a product of and a vehicle for art, creativity, and design; of perfection as refinement applied to a standard; of a vertically and horizontally integrated ecosystem of products and services that all complement each other.
Visionaries become empire builders. They imagine castles in the sky, and worlds within worlds. They see the 'big picture', the forest through the trees. They predict the coming megatrend, the tsunami that will engulf everything in its path. But then they surf the tsunami. They slash a path through the forest. They build the castles. They attract teams that are capable of actually doing and making the things that are in their minds.
Words have meaning. “Vision” is tossed around as a vague, fluffy quality possessed by a few rare entrepreneurs. Nobody knows what it really means, where it comes from, how to tell if someone has it, or if they do, how to assess its quality. That's a shame, because it's actually a highly technical world, used to describe a very meaningful force, the force responsible for driving humans to build creative empires. Once you know what to look for, you should have an easier time spotting it, cultivating it, and betting on it.
I enjoy America's partisan politics. I like it when my fellow citizens have strong opinions which they feel free to express and debate openly. That is healthy.
James Madison said it best in Federalist #10: “faction is sown in the heart of man” and the difference between a barbaric society and a free society is that a barbaric society turns to violence to resolve disputes between factions, whereas a free society turns to public discourse and agreed upon power-sharing through a constitutional structure, such as our elections this November.
In election season, you'll inevitably hear some calls for balance, for the sake of balance. You'll hear a few of your friends say things like, 'the best answer lies somewhere in the middle'. They blame polarization on the politicians, and on the political process.
I disagree with that view. I do not like moderates, independents, or centrists, who are moderate, independent, or centrist, because on principle they believe in moderation, non-affiliation, and centrism. At least the Left and the Right have ideological roots. The Center is derivative, reactive, and constantly evolving. That is a position to take if you have no principles of your own, and your best guess is to solve every equation by taking an average. That's not doing math. That's cheating on the test! You're looking at the answers from the student to your left and to your right, then whenever they are different, adding their figures and dividing by two. Good luck passing the test that way…
I would rather have a fellow citizen whom I strongly disagree with, but who knows what they believe and why, than one who voted with me sometimes, but didn't have any original beliefs of his own.
No, partisanship is not the villain. While at times you may feel disenfranchised by your party, or wish it fielded a better candidate, or frustrated by its incompetence, etc., or even leave it, parties are still a good thing. While you may have achieved the panacea of ideological purity, not everyone agrees with you, and to get things done, to win elections in a body politic, you've got to band together with other citizens who share a few of your core beliefs about the role of government and about the right way to lead the nation.
No, the real villain – the thing that I find most disturbing and dangerous for the long-term health of our American body politic – is that there are so few individuals left who really know why they believe what they believe.
Socrates, if he were alive, would wander the streets of San Francisco, my city, and ask us questions. Questions like:
Who are you voting for? Why? … Oh, I see. But what about this? … Interesting. But have you thought of that? … Okay, but what would you say to this counter-argument? … Hang on a second, that's not consistent with this fact … While that sounds nice, doesn't it contradict x? Drill, drill, drill!
I would happily subject my opinions to such rigorous interrogation and logic. I see that sort of attention, from any sharp mind, as a gift and a compliment. It would be like having a personal trainer for my political philosophy. Who knows? Maybe my thinking would unravel, even though I'd like to think that it is fairly consistent. There's definitely white space left on the intellectual map for me to keep exploring and questions to iron out.
But I'm far more worried about my peers. They represent, I think, the best of my generation and are largely well-educated, tech-savvy, upwardly mobile, and entrepreneurial. But their political views would fall apart under such questioning. This includes those friends that vote as I do. Most of them couldn't stay in the ring with Socrates for 15 minutes. I've observed this in San Diego, New York, and London. Even, or rather shockingly, especially at Cornell and Oxford. Everywhere I've been, most people just want to be cool. They'll retweet what's trending. They'll chime in with a line here and there, to sound educated. But real beliefs? Just not interested.
Socrates called it philosophy for a reason.
That process, systematically asking questions that subject your beliefs to the rigorous scrutiny of logic, is how you obtain philosophy. Most people don't have a philosophy any-more. They have beliefs, sure. But not a set of beliefs that they've arrived at on their own, by doing the hard work of asking and answering hard questions, and demanding logical consistency of themselves and their peers. A coherent, consistent, set of beliefs - that is a philosophy.
What we need in this electorate is more philosophy.
Imagine, for a moment, how different politics, both during and after elections, would be in this country, if every individual started with a political philosophy first and only then made their decision to get involved with a party and vote for its candidate. Parties and candidates would still be as important as they are today, but what would change is that we wouldn't be borrowing all our beliefs from them. It would be the other way around. We would have beliefs and then make the sort of trade-offs and bargains that independently-thinking voters in a free-society make.
Instead, there are too many followers in our midst. They're following us, their peers, especially those of us who speak out. They're following their parties and their party leaders, half-blindly. If political messaging connects with enough cobbled together feelings and half-connected beliefs, it will sway votes.
This has led, in my opinion, to a culture in America in which, ironically, politics is not politically correct, and therefore, not as widely discussed as it should be. It's a subject we'd rather avoid in all settings where the persuasions of those we find ourselves with are unknown. Or, when they are known, but we know we disagree, we stay quiet. We're not comfortable talking about it unless we're safely surrounded by those who already agree with us.
No doubt, politics makes for flammable conversation. These issues affect all of us. They can be emotionally charged. When we try to persuade each other, egos can block reason.
Most of us are mature enough to be civil. It's easy enough to understand these issues and be sensitive to them. But politeness does not mean holding back. Politeness does not mean shutting up. Politeness does not mean engaging your colleagues and friends in real discussion and debate.
So there's no real reason to be so hush-hush about it. After all, we talk about sex openly all the time! What's so different about politics?
Maybe the reason we're so quiet about politics is that, as individuals, we don't really have much to say. Nothing original, that is. We're just mish-mash and hodge-podge; a little this and a little that.
Maybe the reason that we're so emotional about politics is that we've begun to substitute thinking with feeling in our decision-making. When you have a philosophy that you've assembled carefully and tested rigorously, you don't feel threatened, because you've already thought through all the arguments and counter-arguments. You know what you believe and why. But when you're just voting from one election to the next, based on which candidate aligns most closely with your feelings about what should be done and what is right, then of course, you're going to feel very defensive about and threatened by the conflicting opinions of others.
In this election, I strongly oppose one candidate, and I strongly support the other. But neither candidate is campaigning on the platform that I wish the country embrace. I have my own philosophy. I know where I differ from my candidate. I am okay with those differences, because I still believe he will move the country close to where I want it to go.
Over the last couple months, I have slowly become more vocal about my political opinions, but by and large, over the last four years, I have been silent. I have been silent, not because I didn't have a philosophy, but because I was afraid of others disagreeing with me. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to have everyone agree with me.
This election, though, I think that the stakes are high, and that I have a duty, as a citizen of this great country, to engage in the process.
So in my next blog post, I am going to publish some of my political philosophy. I'm going to lay out the principles on which I believe this country should be governed, describe what they might look like in practice, and talk a little bit about why I believe they are right.
Sunday, October 6
After writing this post, I read the following in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, that I feel captures the thrust of this post better than my words. I'm sharing it here as a last affirmation:
There are two sides to every issue: one is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube.
What's the longest meeting you've ever sat through?
Mine was only fifteen minutes long.
Wait, what?! How does that make sense?
I'll tell you the story, but first, we'll talk theory…
Let's suppose you have two meetings. The first is one on one, but it lasts for three hours! The other lasts just thirty minutes, but there are twelve participants. Which is longer?
Trick question. Hint: they both take exactly the same amount of time – SIX hours!
Six, because the first meeting took three hours of time from two participants' schedules (3h x 2 = 6h) and in the second, thirty minutes from twelve participants (30m x 12 = 360m = 6h).
That's basic math, of course, but if you're like me, it's still not that intuitive. We all know that meetings are expensive in terms of time, but it's easy to forget that the more participants join, it doesn't become marginally worse, but dramatically so. You need to remind yourself of it, because it has big implications.
To accomplish a task, it may be much more efficient, for example, for you to spend a whole day in meetings, rather than take fifteen minutes of your whole team's time with a short discussion (or e-mail thread), depending on the size of your team.
But especially if that's not immediately obvious to you, it may be very tempting for you to go with the least efficient option by asking everyone for fifteen minutes, because for you it saves so much time, and after all, who can't spare just fifteen minutes? It's a classic tragedy of the commons, except that in this case, the common good is time – not money, services, or land.
All else equal, even with the right time math, the bias should still be against larger meetings, because when one person speaks, everyone feels an urge to respond. It turns out that there's hidden math here, as well. Time for another example…
Suppose there are two meetings: one with two participants, the other with eight. Let's assume that both conversations (including all participants) are equally provocative, such that if both begin with one participant speaking for the first five-minutes, the other participant(s) want to reply for five-minutes. Which meeting lasts longer? The larger one: (1 x 5m) + (7 x 5m) = 40 minutes long instead of (1 x 5m) + (1 x 5m) = 10 minutes long.
What if our assumption is wrong? Perhaps smaller conversations are just more stimulating. Or maybe in larger ones, even if everyone wants to give their full five-minute reply, they will restrain themselves out of consideration of their colleague's time, pressure from social norms, etc. and cut it short, by half.
So, let's dispense with our old assumption and replace it with a new one: smaller conversations are twice as provocative and larger conversations are half as provocative as we said before. What do we get now?
SmallerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (1 x 10m) = 15m
LargerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (7 x 2.5m) = 22.5m
There's your proof. Even though the larger meeting, in this example, has four times more participants, we compensated for that by halving its response time and doubling that of the smaller meeting. Convinced?
In case you're not, let's do a little more math to prove the point. After all, maybe this example is rigged. We did, after all, give the larger meeting four times more participants. So shouldn't we be dividing its response-time by four? You end up with this:
SmallerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (1 x 5m) = 10m
LargerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (7 x 1.25m) = 13.75m
Or, if you do the opposite, and multiply the response-time of the smaller meeting by four, you end up with:
SmallerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (1 x 20m) = 25m
LargerMeeting = (1 x 5m) + (7 x 5m) = 40m
I'm no math whiz, so maybe I'm wrong, but this exercise seems to indicate that you should have a bias towards smaller meetings because when you factor in the human reality that people want to respond to each other, they are more efficient.
It gets worse, as if it weren't bad enough. If you just take a moment to think about it, what I've been calling 'provocativeness' - our inclination to respond to each other - in most situations is best modeled by either an exponentially decaying or multiplying function. Let's put this in human terms. A normal conversation, between two people, goes like this: I talk, you respond, then I respond to you, you respond back to me, and so forth. Conversations can either wax or wane. When they wax, the response time in each back-and-forth cycle is either stable or increasing. When they wane, it decreases.
What this helps us recognize is that the SmallerMeeting and the LargerMeeting in the example above rarely end after the first cycle of conversation. Each set of replies trigger a new set of replies of waxing or waning length. Here's my best attempt to model that dynamic:
WAXING by 1.5x for five cycles…
SmallerMeetingCycleOne = (1 x 5m) + (1 x 5m) = 10m
SmallerMeetingResponseTwo = 10m + 1.5 x (1 x 5m) = 17.5m
SmallerMeetingResponseThree = 17.5m + 1.5 x (1 x 7.5m) = 28.75m
SmallerMeetingResponseFour = 28.75m + 1.5 x (1 x 11.25m) = 45.625m
SmallerMeetingResponseFive = 45.625m + 1.5 x (1 x 16.875m) = 70.94m 1 hour and 10 minutes
LargerMeetingCycleOne = (1 x 5m) + (7 x 5m) = 40m
LargerMeetingResponseTwo = 40m + 1.5 x (8 x 5m) = 100m
LargerMeetingResponseThree = 100m + 1.5 x (8 x 7.5m) = 190m
LargerMeetingResponseFour = 190m + 1.5 x (8 x 11.25m) = 325m
LargerMeetingResponseFive = 325m + 1.5 x (8 x 16.875m) = 527.5m 8 hours and 45 minutes
WANING by .5x for five cycles…
SmallerMeetingCycleOne = (1 x 5m) + (1 x 5m) = 10m
SmallerMeetingResponseTwo = 10m + .5 x (1 x 5m) = 12.5m
SmallerMeetingResponseThree = 12.5m + .5 x (1 x 2.5m) = 13.75m
SmallerMeetingResponseFour = 13.75m + .5 x (1 x 1.25m) = 14.375m
SmallerMeetingResponseFive = 14.375m + .5 x (1 x .625m) = 14.6875m 15 minutes
LargerMeetingCycleOne = (1 x 5m) + (7 x 5m) = 40m
LargerMeetingResponseTwo = 40m + .5 x (8 x 5m) = 60m
LargerMeetingResponseThree = 60m + .5 x (8 x 2.5m) = 70m
LargerMeetingResponseFour = 70m + .5 x (8 x 1.25m) = 75m
LargerMeetingResponseFive = 75m + .5 x (8 x .625m) = 77.5m 1 hour and 15 minutes
Guess what tickles me about this? When I crunched the numbers, I didn't know what to expect, but I feel like this is fairly indicative of my actual experience. When I'm in a long meeting – like an advisory board session, for instance – with eight others and we're talking about something that is very 'provocative' (interesting, controversial, substantive, important, etc.) it feels like the conversation expands rapidly, then, just when, from a conversational stand-point, we're barely getting starting, at around the third round of responses, we've spent over three hours and we're out of time! It's almost as if, to get it all out, we would need an Entmoot!
“Since the Ents' language is so descriptive and 'unhasty', an Entmoot can take a very long time. In the Lord of the Rings, the Ents met for three days to decide if they should go to war, which is considred quick for an Entmoot.”
Conversely, if I find myself in a room dealing with a relatively less 'provocative' subject (not as complicated, not as controversial, not as critical), even if it starts winding down from the beginning, it can take over an hour to just wind-down. I think that last model – LargerMeeting when waning – is most similar to the sorts of meetings I find myself most often: scheduled for an hour, running over-time by fifteen minutes, when most of what really needed to be discussed could have been handled in fifteen minutes (in a SmallerMeeting when waning model).
It's not that simple of course and other factors come into play. Perhaps by letting everyone participate in a big meeting, there's some added benefit from distributed awareness, consensus, or lots of different perspectives. In a medium-sized meeting, there may be benefits to having some of the key-stakeholders present for making a decision. On the other hand, by keeping it small, there's professional intimacy, you'll both feel real ownership of the output, and you can concentrate more easily on co-creation.
Also, spliced schedules suck. Certainly I am not the first to observe that when your meetings are spread out, either spatially or temporally, it gets harder to get stuff done in-between. It's overhead: the higher it is, the greater the tax on efficiency.
Last but not least, some people's time is more expensive than others, so you need to take that into account as well. This isn't just about pay-scale, either. It's possible that the most junior person on your team happens to be working on what is, for the moment, the single most critical issue right now, and if he becomes a bottle-neck because he got dragged into a meeting, the delay could be very expensive. For example, if all the big-ticket engineers have finished their coding for the day and they go into one last meeting, maybe the young QA engineer should sit it out, if a build is about to be pushed and bugs need to be found and resolved.
Even so, calculate the real length!
To wrap up, three simple tips:
First, for every meeting next week, do the math on the real time spent, and share it with your team. Awareness is the first step.
Second, encourage anyone, at any time during a meeting, to interrupt, excuse themselves if they feel they are no longer needed, or ask whether the discussion currently in-motion is best-served by everyone being present, or whether it should be broken up into one or more smaller meetings.
Third, encourage other healthy meeting habits. Maybe, before someone calls a meeting, a written agenda should be circulated. That way, when a response, to a response, to a response has side-tracked the conversation way off course, there is an agreed-upon anchor to return to.
Back to the story behind my longest meeting…
When I interned at Google, I used to sit in on internal conference calls. Most were fairly brief. Some had dozens of participants, others had literally hundreds, and a few were “all-hands” meetings for whole departments or even, occasionally, the entire company. Those big ones, even if they had lasted for just fifteen minutes, were certainly longer than any meeting with an individual or small group I've ever been in, or ever will be.
It's just math.
Do the math!
My colleague Joe Nangle (@joenangle on Twitter) just asked that we institute the mandatory-agenda policy in Tip #3. Smart guy!
Today, I almost didn't write a blog post, even though I've kept up a nice streak for almost a week. I assumed nobody would notice or care, but I was wrong. I dedicate this post to my friend David Matthews (@davidolski on Twitter) from Sponsorfied, who reminded me tonight of the value of consistency, even if it's just publishing one paragraph, and gave me the encouragement I needed to keep writing a post a day. Thank you, David: I started this post fully intending it to be one paragraph, I promise!
What if there was a restaurant where the customers do the cooking?
If restaurants are about resting, cook-au-rants are about cooking!
Imagine: you show up, maybe with a friend as well, and you choose to either be the chef or to be on another chef's team. If you're the chef, you can either choose a dish to prepare from a cookbook or opt for a more experimental session. First, you go down to the storeroom and choose from a cornucopia of food, spices, and other ingredients. There's state-of-the-art kitchen spaces and equipment, with various stations. Professional chefs roam around answering questions or doing paid tutorials. You take up your station and get to work.
Once your meal is prepared you can either eat it there or take it home. Or, if you're experienced enough and your dish meets a chef's approval, you can sell it to normal customers who come there for novelty dishes from amateurs like you. If you want and they're game too, you can even meet them, ask them for feedback, and chat with them while they eat your food.
It would certainly take some magic to get this past the regulators, but that shouldn't stop a determined entrepreneur. Novelty sells! People crave new experiences, particularly ones which both give them a creative outlet and expand their life skills at the same time.
I know it sounds crazy, but something tells me this is the kind of crazy that might actually work.
What's one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can posses?
I think it's the ability to see clearly by creating parallax.
How accurately do you perceive what's going on in your business or the impact that any given decision will make on it? Can you reconcile conflicting inputs in order to think about a problem in all its dimensions?
There's a term from optics that helps me think about how to process different points of view. You have two eyes, with two separate cones of vision, but your brain merges these into one unified field of sight, so that you can navigate your surroundings effortlessly, instead of running into that brick wall. Scientists call this phenomenon 'parallax' and you should be grateful for it, because without it, you wouldn't be going anywhere fast.
In business, I feel like there's a similar trick to be played by those who wish to see clearly so they can move quickly. Every day, we make lots of decisions, and occasionally, we come across one that is very important. How do we decide what to do? Sometimes we know exactly what to do. But not always. We have blind spots. We can't see around turns.
To prevent myself from running my business into a brick wall, I have come to rely on input from other people: my co-founders and team, our formal and informal advisors, friends and family. Do you know what I've found? It's not easy to reconcile conflicting inputs. Advice will often be inconsistent. Perspectives will clash. Inputs will need to be discarded or discounted. You'll stress out.
Imagine how your brain would cope with input not just from your eyes, but from the eyes of everyone looking at you. Organisms are not equipped to do that, but organizations not only can, but must, do that to survive. Except an organization, by itself, is blind. It needs you to create parallax.
It takes practice. In the last year, I've spent countless hours radar-ing out: explaining our situation and framing a decision, to the best of my abilities, for an advisor, and then asking him or her for an informed opinion. The more time you spend doing this, the better you both get at it.
Over time, you create an algorithm. By some miracle of the subconscious mind, you start evaluating the advice you get in various situations and weighting it in different ways. For example, if you're making a decision on an engineering hire, you're going to get opinions from lots of people, but you're going to weight input from technical advisors and teammates more heavily. Then you make the decision. Afterwards, at various checkpoints, you will reflect on the outcome of that decision and recalibrate your algorithm. Maybe someone you didn't expect had given you a perspective that you discounted at the time, but which proved to be very prescient. Or maybe someone whose experience you relied on heavily completely misjudged the situation, and you'll want to investigate why that happened.
For the leader of any organization, the goal should be to have a vast constellation of people orbiting to give input, but to rely very heavily on the few individuals whose perspective is most relevant to the situation and whose advice you've tested and come to trust. Always, always: seek better inputs and improve how you filter them.
Ultimately, it's your call. Don't lose control of a decision by democratizing it. Parallax protects you from the vices of decision-making by committee. This isn't about consensus. This is about you, as an artist-leader, creating parallax by merging lots of perspectives into a unified field of vision for the organization, in order to understand where you really stand in relation to everything else, then using that awareness to inform decision-making. It's important to remember that you have more data than any single input. You see all the inputs. Not only that, when you have conviction, you should weigh your own input more heavily than any other.
Here are three tips from insights I've gleaned from thinking about parallax, and I hope they're useful to you.
First, don't let just anyone bother you.
Who do you let **bother* you? On any given subject, there shouldn't be many people whom you let to literally upset you enough to change your mood. Whose criticism will you take personally? Evaluate your emotional vulnerabilities and make sure that trust is well placed. Because the larger the scale at which you operate, the more people are going to be pissed off at any given moment. You've got to lead, so you can't let that get to you, you can't afford the distraction.
Who do you disagree with strongly but still respect intellectually and trust? Keep those people close enough and informed enough to give you a counterpoint to your thinking, but not so close that they interfere with action. Beware of signal jamming. You want tension, not disharmony. Encourage them enough so that they tell you what they really think when you need their feedback, but don't let them get disruptive. Dissenters sometimes spread uncertainty that could create paralysis. So have a process for managing that, both inside and outside your organization. Better that they come to you with their concerns and feel that you're listening, rather than get frustrate and start agitating. I think of these people as brakes. They help me turn and sometimes, stop.
Conversely, be careful of gaining false confidence from those who agree with a proposed course of action too easily, particularly if they don't provide additional new perspective. I think of these people as the gas. Most of the time, you want to accelerate with confidence to move fast, but remember, you usually want at least a little friction for traction.
Learn to have thick skin. Surround yourself with BOTH 'yes' and 'no' men.
Secondly, define every relationship. Be clear in your mind what's its really about. Maybe you ask for someone's opinion on various topics, but remember what area of expertise you really need them for. That's usually why you sought them out in the first place. If you don't listen to them on that subject anymore, which sometimes happens, then maybe you should re-evaluate the entire relationship. Maybe they're just draining your time and obscuring signal with noise.
Lastly, don't wait to give advice. I'll phrase this rather ironically: remember how easily we forget. When you've just conquered a problem, every nuance and detail remains fresh in your mind. You can recount them perfectly. If you can, write them down in a blog post. Don't wait till you're older, more credible, or wiser to share your advice. Teaching is part of the learning process. In some very important ways, we're actually more objective and knowledge when we're seeking than when we're giving advice. Because when you've just left the trenches, that's when you know exactly what to say to the person just entering them. Besides, it's good karma: when you're leading an organization, you get so much good advice, you should pay down some of that when you can. Find a younger version of yourself. Someone who is a year behind you on a similar path. Help them. You'll be amazed at how much time you can save them when they encounter the same obstacles and roadblocks you faced. You'll wish you had a guide like you. Conversely, you'll stop looking just to grey-beards for help, and start balancing that with the advice of someone who is a year ahead of you on a similar path.
Creating parallax is hard work. The first step is being aware of it and having some sense for how it works. Then it's up to you. Good luck!
In a world full of worthwhile distractions, we need priorities. The first priority is having priorities, which means actually focusing on less, not more. The second priority is removing distractions. The third is entering a state of flow.
Let's do this as an exercise, together, right now.
Begin by writing down the three most important objectives you're working towards. Great, now we've got priorities. Focus on them. When you get to the end of your day, you should know how to answer the question: what'd you accomplish? This is what you should measure your progress against.
Next, pick up your iPhone. Turn on Airplane Mode. My favorite feature (that I don't use enough) has become the 'Airplane Mode' switch in 'Settings' which shuts off all signals being sent or received by the device, including WiFi, Bluetooth, or 3G. No more texts. No more emails. No more incoming anything. Silence.
After reading Sarah's post about not saying “No” enough, the insight that stuck me most profoundly was this phrase: “You're either training them, or you're being trained.” That made me feel guilty about my communication habits. When I respond to text messages and emails immediately, even at 11pm at night, I'm training people that I am always available to them. Next time I want to take a vacation, or even to just unplug for a Saturday spent doing something outdoors with friends, I am going to fret about unanswered messages.
I'm the first to admit that I'm completely addicted to checking my iPhone. It's a fidget that gives me a false sense of productivity and makes me feel busy. I've read a little about the science behind it: I've let technology train my mind to expect dopamine hits from notifications on a regular basis. I've let my colleagues, friends, and family train me, like Pavlov's dog, to pick up my phone and respond every time they send me a message. What is the highest engagement feature on Facebook? Those annoying red notification numbers at the top. You swat them like flies. But they keep you coming back.
There's a serious consequence to this. What I've done to my brain is consumed some of its best cycles by giving unnecessary attention to low-value noise and chatter. I've eroded my ability to concentrate for an extended period on making progress towards a single objective. I am depriving myself of the creative solitude so necessary in leadership. What does all this cost me?
I have come to recognize that perhaps the best single indicator of your success and happiness is how long you spend every day in a state of flow. This is not just true about your productivity and accomplishments at work. This is also true about your athletic performance or the time you spend with your significant other or any other personal relationship. When people talk about the benefits of being fully 'present' or 'in the moment' that's what they're talking about.
Don't let people interrupt your flow by sending you a text. That's why, when you can, you should turn on airplane mode. The longer you can stretch it, the more flow you'll experience, and the more objectives you'll achieve.
Airplane mode is appropriately named. It lets you fly!
When you fail, you learn one thing, or a sequence of things, that didn't work. When you succeed, you learn one thing, or a sequence of things, that did work. There's a lot more things that don't work than things that do work. Therefore, you're more likely to learn the wrong lessons from failure than you are from success.
For a monthly subscription, I wish I could…
- Read any e-book at my leisure on my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook.
- Get books shipped to my door and send them back when I'm done.
For this service, I would pay up to $25 a month.
That's the MVP, but over time, this should compete with Goodreads, which is still the only social network for books, doesn't have great design, and seems to have stopped innovating in any substantial way. Strategically, this makes sense, because once the user is invested in their identity and place in the community, they are less likely to leave it.
Social features could include the ability to:
- Queue up a reading list
- Rate or review books
- Showcase books you've read and subjects you're well-read in
- Creating or joining a virtual 'book club'
- Following your friends' activity and being followed by others
- Discovering new books through suggestions or browsing
All of this should be fairly straightforward. The trick is getting the design, branding, and user experience right. An example of “getting it right” is Seenth.at - the social network for movies - that my friend John Perkins is building. I am on the beta and it gets better every month. The community is obsessed and super-active. I love it.
As far as design guidance goes, I think there's a lot to be done with a shelf-style interface and the masonry format (which Pinterest popularized, and Seenth.at adopts as well).
Eventually, if this is successful, non-obvious monetization opportunities may present themselves, such as giving users 'rewards' for successfully completing a book by offering discounts on products or services related to the book's content. For example, if a user just finished reading Sherlock Holmes, offer them a discount on the DVD or on a flight to London, etc.
Let's pre-empt the primary argument against this business model, which almost certainly will be that shipping costs are prohibitive.
One way around it might be to start exclusively with distribution warehouses in urban areas and just worry about inter-city transportation (here again, a Postmates API would be useful to tap into their courier network, instead of re-inventing the wheel).
Another might be just charging more. If shipping a one pound book via USPS media mail (prices here) costs roughly $2.50 one-way, then round-trip costs $5, then guess what? Charge accordingly. If I'm willing to pay $25 for this service every month, I'm sure others would be too. Users who just want to use the product on the web pay less. Depending on how many books you ship, you pay more. It is still cheaper than buying them retail. And for a business like this that does a lot of traffic, I am sure there are lower business rates available.
Somebody, build this business! I'd gladly help!
Maybe licenses are the problem?
It just occurred to me that maybe obtaining content licenses is going to be the most challenging part of this business. Observe how hard a time Apple has had doing deals with cable companies who know that if they sign, their entire business model is going to be disrupted. Music labels taught the rest of the media industry a lesson - don't cooperate with technology companies who want to license your content!
As successful as Netflix has been, my biggest complaint as a consumer is that it doesn't have most of the content I want the most. That's because the movie industry isn't signing.
So any entrepreneur that's going to take on this market should take into consideration that book publishers aren't going to make this easy. That's okay. There's a way to force their hand. They're desperate for cash. If you can get just one publisher to break ranks, then the next will, and the rest will eventually follow. You don't need a super-majority to pass this vote. You just need enough content to prove the model and give users a viable experience.
When iPod + iTunes launched, Bill Gates threw a fit at Microsoft. He was incredulous. He couldn't believe that Steve had been able to convince the record labels to sign his deal. But he did. Whatever he did to make that happen - and I'm sure the reality distortion field was involved - it worked.
So it can be done.
Why not just get it on Kindle or the iBookstore?
Because I'd prefer to rent than to buy, and an all-you-can eat subscription most of all.
Why not just get a library membership?
Because the selection is never good enough, their systems are old, and I'm a libertarian, so I don't believe it is a legitimate use of taxpayer dollars.
Spotify for audiobooks?
After reading this post, Kristy Tillman from IDEO in Boston suggested that a similar business model might also work for an audiobook business with a UX like Spotify. In fact, maybe a paid Spotify app might be sufficient. Regardless, I think that's a great idea and I'd pay for it, probably no more then $4 a month, as long as there was good content available. When I love the narrator's voice, I love audiobooks. When I don't, I can't stand 'em. For example, here's my all-time favorite, and it's free!
As an aside, I think it'd be cool to create an audiobook production company that's all about dramatic interpretation and narrative quality. As a boy, I loved listening to the Radio Theater versions of Les Miserables and the Chronicles of Narnia. Because the production quality was world-class but there was no video, it left your imagination free to interpret every scene. It was incredibly stimulating and I miss that format.