Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Art of Winning without Winning

As most of you know, I’ve done a fair amount of martial arts in my time. Over the years I’ve gone from Karate to Kung Fu until finally settling down in Aikido and in all that time hanging out with martial artists, there is one question that seems to come up more than any other.

“Which style is really the best?”

I’ve spent hours, particularly after a few drinks, debating the various advantages of different styles from Muay Thai to Capoeira . It’s sort of like comic book fans arguing over, Who is stronger, Superman or the Hulk. Fun to talk about but no real answers.

However, all that changed with the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts. Suddenly, it was very clear which styles were most useful in a cage match, and Aikido, the art I’ve studied for almost a decade, was not among them.

All of which begs the question, Why am I wasting my time studying a martial art that isn’t “The Best?”

We all want the best: Best car, best house, best relationships. We want to elect the best politicians who have the best ideas and will execute the best policy. We want our children to go to the best schools so they can get the best jobs and live the best lives.

The question is, “How do we find the best?

The answer, almost invariably, is through competition. We turn the choices into combatants, put them in a cage, and have them fight it out. Our legal, political and, in many way, economic systems are predicated on the theory that, that which wins is inherently better than that which loses. In fact, “The Best” is so closely linked to winning as to be almost axiomatic.

However, we rarely stop to ask if this competitive system is really giving us the results we want.

Imagine this cage match:

In one corner, a 300 pound professional football player who has taken five kickboxing classes at the local Y. In the other corner is an 85 pound, 13 year old who has been a dedicated Jujitsu practitioner since he was five years old.

Will their match teach us anything about the relative merits of the martial arts involved, or even about the individual’s skill in the practice of those arts? No, because the strength, speed, size and athleticism of the football player will overwhelm any advantage of skill or style the 13 year old might have.

Does that sound like a ridiculous scenario?

Well, try this one.

Imagine two politicians are running for office. One is a tall handsome, articulate, well financed neophyte who knows nothing whatsoever about economics, foreign relations or public policy. The other, is a short, poorly dressed, ugly woman with a pronounced stutter and a deep, understanding of practical governance.

Is the person you want to see in office the same as the person who would win the election?

Once again, the traits necessary for winning are often very different from the ones we hoped the competition would favor.

To make matters worse, the media, who should be guiding us through the complex issues are, instead, covering the competition as if it were just another sport. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who made a mistake? Who can win?

“Who can govern?”rarely enters into the conversation.

The idea behind our political system is kind of like a cage match, except instead of a battle of technique it is supposed to be a battle ideas. Unfortunately, rather than bringing us the most qualified people with the best ideas, the crucible of election tends to sensationalize conflict, water down content and polarize the country.

This reality is so deeply woven into our political system that our highly qualified but, in all likelihood, unelectable woman would probably never even bother to run.

Our most important institutions are predicated on the idea that competition brings out the best. The result is a criminal system that favors the rich and penalizes minorities and an economic system that has concentrated the vast majority of our wealth in the hands of a privileged few while millions of others fight their own “cage matches” everyday merely to survive.

You would think that our incredibly competitive marketplace would ensure the healthiest, most durable products in the world, instead we get fast food hamburgers and electronics which are out of date almost before we unwrap them.

The American media system is more than competitive. It’s “Dog eat Dog”, with producers, networks, publishers and studios fighting tooth and nail for our attention. If winners are “The Best” then the most successful shows, magazines, movies and newscasts must be the most intelligent, well made, informative, dramatic and high quality media in the world, right?

Wrong. The opposite is true because the rules of the competition do not favor quality only eyeballs. The game is to get you to tune in and the easiest way to win is not by appealing to the best in us, but often the worst.

Of course, the biggest, most destructive and most terrifying cage match in the world is war and when it comes to war, the American military is the best of the best. They are the best trained, best supplied, best organized and in, every way, most powerful military organization the world has ever seen. So, if they’re so great, why have they struggled so much in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is: They haven’t. By every military measure, the US Armed Forces have performed in an exemplary manner, defeating Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in a matter of weeks and easily capturing the Taliban strongholds of Kabul and Kandahar..

Unfortunately, our expectations didn’t end with winning the war. We wanted them to win a peace. We expected an organization trained to destroy an enemy to become diplomats and nation builders. We demanded they navigate ancient religious conflicts, rebuild damaged infrastructure, and establish new governments for cultures they didn’t understand while surrounded by sectarian violence and the constant threat of terrorism.

The training, equipment and even mindset which makes the American military so formidable in war has worked against them because the skills necessary to succeed, sensitivity, patience, acceptance, restraint cooperation and compromise are non-competitive and as such are fundamentally antithetical to any military mission.

Or, to put it more simply, asking the same organization to conquer a country and save it from itself is almost a contradiction in terms.

Can you imagine a top MMA fighter trying to defeat and provide medical, psychological and economic aid to his opponent at the same time?

Make no mistake, I am not writing this to criticize our armed forces, martial artists, or anyone else fighting the good fight for what they believe is a good cause. I merely want to examine, more carefully, the premise that competition is the only pathway to success.

Competition can bring out the best in us and often does. However, it can also bring out the worst and the harder we try to win, whether it’s selling the most products, beating the other guy in an election or winning a war, the more we tend to lose sight of why we started competing in the first place.

In our families, friendships, workplaces and communities the biggest challenges we face are almost always about working together. There are no awards for the best cooperator and you can’t win at sensitivity or flexibility but those are the skills we need everyday to be a good friend, father, sister or citizen. They also help you to lead a happy life.

And it’s not just on an individual level. If we are to solve the biggest challenges our planet faces, the environment, energy, poverty and religious, racial and cultural conflict we must find ways, not to compete but to cooperate.

If human society is to survive, the only way to “win” is to stop trying to beat the other guy and start working together for the common good.

All of which, I suppose, brings us back to why I study Aikido.

The truth is, if you’re goal is to win a no-holds-barred cage match then Aikido isn’t for you, because the purpose of Aikido isn’t to hurt, but to harmonize, to meet anger with compassion and violence with gentleness. In the end, the goal is not to end conflict by destroying an enemy. The goal is to resolve conflict by the destroying the idea enmity itself.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Letter to my Son

Dear Jaxon,

You are three weeks old today, and as I stare into your open, curious eyes, I find myself thinking of all the things I want to give to you.  Not a name or food or the roof over your head, although I will certainly give you those, but the lessons of life which will guide you, hopefully, to be, not a great man, but something far more important, a good one. 

In a way, this is the test I have studied for my whole life. The time when I must pass on what I have learned, frame it, focus it, and perhaps most importantly, strive to live up to the ideals which I espouse, so that I can show you the way, not with words, but with actions.

But what are those ideals? What hard lessons has life has taught me that I can pass on in the hope that you might do better?

The first is that I am human, like everyone else, flawed, fallible, fragile, and incomplete.

Knowledge of your own humanity is the first step to compassion, and compassion is the gateway to lasting love.

I have learned that the feeling of wanting, of desire, is not an expression of need, but rather a symptom of the human condition, and that those who always get what they want, almost always end up wanting more.

I have learned that compassion, courage, and character are more important than awards, assets, and accolades.

I have come to believe that life is learning, and patience is the first lesson. It leads to all the others.

Fear, on the other hand, is the first enemy, and the most tenacious.

I have learned that in order to grow, you must fail, and in order to fail, you must take risks.

Doing what comes easily is a joy, but sometimes the real rewards come from doing what comes hardest.

Knowing you are right is easy. Admitting you are wrong is hard. One is a sign of arrogance, the other a sign of strength.

Remember, you cannot control the talents you are born with, you can only control what you do with them.

I have found that happiness does not come in a pill or a palace. It has no secret path or magic password (at least none that I’ve found.) It is as illusive as it is precious.

I’ve seen that good does not always triumph, and evil often prospers, but being kind is never wrong, and caring is it’s own reward.

I’ve learned that there is no true love, no destiny, and that dreams do not, after all, come true, at least, not the way you expect. I’ve learned that life is never easy, or kind, or fair.

Life hurts.

But, if you can roll with the punches, cry when you need to, and laugh when you can’t, it is, most definitely, worth it.

I have no way of knowing what life has in store for you. There will be triumphs and failures, surprises and disappointments. It will take you places you never expected and challenge you in ways you never thought possible. It will ask too much of you and sometimes feel as if it gives nothing at all.

I cannot tell you how to succeed or even what success will mean for you. All I can give you is this advice, for what it’s worth.





Be Patient.

Be Kind.

And try to be brave.

These are the lessons I have learned, but seeing the path and walking the path are not always the same thing, and I have lost my way many times.

I eat too much, think too much, talk too much, and do too little. I have been afraid, discouraged, arrogant, angry, and lost. I have hurt the people that I love, and while I’ve rarely done things that I knew to be wrong, I’ve often failed to do those things I knew to be right.

I am not the man I set out to become.

So, perhaps this isn’t about what I have to teach you, but rather what you have given me: The desire to be a better man.

In the end, the only gift I can give you is a promise. I promise to do my best to listen when you want to tell me something, and to learn who you truly are and not who I want you to be. I promise to be patient even when you are not and kind even when I do not understand. Above all, I will try to be brave enough to face the things I find hardest and walk this path with you until it’s time for you to forge a path of your own.

Thank you for this and for all the lessons we will learn together.



July 13th, 2011

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Apologies Accepted (and Required)

A few months ago, Harold Camping, an engineer turned Evangelical preacher, predicted that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. Hundreds of thousands of people believed him. Since you’re reading this now, it is safe to say that Camping was wrong.

The question is, why hasn’t he admitted it?

Why hasn’t he apologized?

And it's not just Harold Camping I’m worried about. We have a tremendous dearth of apologies in this country and we rarely learn from our mistakes.

They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. However, our problem is not that we have forgotten the lessons of the Roman Empire and the blunders which heralded its decline (although we probably should take a look at that stuff). Our problem is that we have forgotten the blunders of last year, last week, or even yesterday.

If we had any memory at all we would demand apologies from those who have led us into one blunder after another, but for some reason we don’t do that.

Remember all those financial analysts who said the economy was stronger than ever in 2007?

They must’ve all been fired, right?


They’re on CNBC pulling down big salaries and making new predictions every single day.

Remember those politicians and pundits who predicted the Iraq war would be done in a few months and cost minimal lives? They apologized right? They went to the house of every soldier who lost a leg or an arm and promised to do better in the future.

Didn’t they?

Or perhaps the more important question is, “Did you?”

When you fucked up, when you argued for the wrong side, when you passionately espoused a belief which in hindsight turned out to be flawed or false, did you admit it and maybe even apologize to those who had it right?

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I’m not a religious person so if the rapture had happened it’s a pretty good bet I would’ve been left behind to suffer through the earthquakes, hurricanes and tortures of the antichrist. If that had happened, you can bet your ass I would’ve apologized. In fact, I probably would’ve gotten down on my knees and begged for forgiveness.

While I’m at it, I might as well mention a few things I have gotten wrong. I thought the cold war would go on forever. I thought Israel would be unable to resist getting involved in the first Gulf war. I was certain John Kerry would win the 2004 election and that Adam Lambert would be the American Idol (I’m still pissed off by at least one of those). I thought Obama would honor his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo. I’m even currently rethinking my stance on nuclear power, but that’s a topic for another blog.

That’s just a sample of the mistakes I’ve made (my wife could probably tell you a lot more).

I apologize and promise to do better in the future but I don’t want you to let me off the hook. I want you to remember my mistakes and put them up there on the scales when you weigh my ideas.

Unfortunately, that’s not how Americans work. We don’t listen to the advice of the guy with the best track record. We listen to the guy with the loudest voice and often the scariest predictions. It’s charisma that wins the day and those charismatic folks depend on you forgetting the bullshit they said yesterday, particularly if it was in direct contradiction to the bullshit they are saying today.

Need an example?

When protestors took to the streets during the Bush administration, the right said it was un-American to protest a sitting president during a time of war. The left defended the protestors as the best evidence of democracy. Now that a Democrat is in office, it’s the left that is complaining about the Tea Party movement and the right that is talking about free speech.

These folks need to pick a lane and if they don’t, we need to hold them up to the inconstancies of their statements.

Wouldn’t it be great if every time a pundit or politician made a statement on TV the network was legally required to display his “batting average” right below his face?

While we’re at it, let’s throw a consistency graphic up on the screen which will flash every time they switch positions for political expediency. You see, I don’t want a candidate who is pro-choice in the primary and pro-life in the general. I want to know what my candidate actually believes.

If Keith Olberman or Bill O’Reilly attacks a politician for something, then they should go after all politicians guilty of that crime, not simply those who oppose their particular ideology.

And while we’re cluttering up our new HD TV with graphics for “batting average” and “consistency”, why don’t we add one for bias? Let’s find out who is paying the bills for these guys. We know when we see a movie star plugging his movie on Letterman that he’s trying to sell tickets, but what about the climate “scientist” who is employed by the coal industry or the guy from the milk industry talking about what we should eat?

We should know who is paying the bills and who stands to make millions from what they tell us.

Harold Camping’s organization, Family Radio, raised millions of dollars from his end of the world predictions. Those are incredible profits for something that turned out to be bullshit but they pale in comparison to the profits the energy companies are making while they deny the validity of climate change.

Will they apologize if the predictions of cataclysmic (some might even say apocalyptic) climate change actually occur?

Of course, we’re never going to get those apologies and it’s not in the network’s best interests to undermine their pundits' credibility.

We’re the ones who have to keep them honest. We’re the ones who have to stop flocking to the story of the day and remember the bold statements of yesterday. We’re the ones who have to keep track of the predictions, the inconsistencies and the biases.

And when those folks fuck up, when they send us to war, blindly increase the debt, send the economy into the toilet, ignore the warning signs in the environment or simply lie to us in order to get elected one more time, we are the ones who have to hold them accountable.

And, while we’re at it, maybe we should take a minute and check out our own batting average, consistency and bias. When we screw up, do we admit it and apologize or deny it and move on? Do we form our opinions based on our affiliations or based on our carefully considered values? Are we supporting those tax cuts, incentives, or minimum wage increases because we genuinely believe they are good for the community, the nation and the world or simply because they are good for us?

If we don’t.... it’s not the politicians, pundits, and Harold Campings of the world who need to apologize.

It’s us.

(By the way, if you noticed that this Blog is better spelled and punctuated than the others, all the credit goes to Wendy Cooper. thanks Wendy!!)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reprogramming the Corporation

In a 1942 short story, Isaac Asimov, wrote what have come to be known as the “The Three Laws of Robotics”. These laws have fascinated generations of fans but they have also found their way into real science, particularly now as we make the first tentative steps towards artificial intelligence.

They are as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The more I think about these laws the more brilliant they become. They represent an almost, complete, cognitive trap and one can see that if a robot existed and if they were programmed with the three laws, it would be very difficult for them to become anything other than a force for good.

In a way, the three laws are Asimov’s answer to the classic Frankenstein story. There are literally thousands of those. Humans, through hubris, avarice or even the desire to save the planet, create something that they cannot control and the result is tragedy.

Asimov solved the Frankenstein dilemma with three simple laws. He solved it with programming.

You might think that Frankenstein’s monster, the powerful automaton that walks the earth leaving devastation and destruction in it’s wake, is a myth but I don’t. I believe we have created monsters far more powerful than anything Mary Shelly could have imagined.

They have knocked down mountains, burned forests, forced whole populations to work in slave-like conditions and even started wars. They are more powerful than many governments and they exist, for no other reason than to serve their own ends.

Our Frankenstein’s monster is the corporation and if we are ever to solve our planet’s problems we must look long and hard at the way they are programmed.

In almost every set of corporate bylaws you will find some version of the following sentence.

“The _____ corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to it’s shareholders.”

In Asimov’s terms, this “fiduciary responsibility” is the first law.

In corporate-speak the first law is translated as “The Bottom Line”.

With that programming in place why are we surprised that corporations will do just about anything to increase their profits including mass layoffs, unsafe products, pollution and the manipulation of both the media and government in the pursuit of their very simple goals?

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When Corporations were first established, in the late 17th century, they were chartered by the government for the sole purpose of providing a public service, such as building a canal or a hospital. Most of them were in operation for only a limited time and when the job they were chartered for was completed they simply disbanded.

However, the corporation dedicated to the public good bares little resemblance to the multi-national giants which run our economy today.

The government granted charters disappeared in the early 1800’s, essentially changing the first law from “public good” to “Bottom line.”

From that point on corporations in the United States have pressured congress and the courts to increase their power starting with the1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which used the fourteenth amendment (originally designed to grant rights to newly freed slaves) to give human rights to corporations and culminating with last years decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In it, The Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations have same the constitutional rights and privileges as a person including, the first amendment rights of free speech. Sine, in the modern era, money is considered to equal speech, “Citizens United” gives corporations the right to use their massive coffers to influence elections and government.

The reasoning behind these decisions is that corporations are, essentially, groups of people, and as such should have all the rights and privileges that individuals have.

However, while individuals use their rights for a myriad of motivations, corporations use those rights for only one. The bottom line.

One could argue that corporations are no different form us in this. Since all of us (not just corporations) are motivated by self interest.

However, humans are an exceedingly complex species with a multiplicity of complex and often contradictory motivations. We care about our self interest, yes but we also care about a myriad of things which are sometimes at direct odds to our personal needs and desires. We care about children, community, country, religion, art, TV shows and football teams. We donate to charities, help out our friends and volunteer at our kids schools. In fact, if you could probably spend the rest of your life trying to to list all the things humans care about.

Try telling, a mom sacrificing for her child or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade that humans are motivated by simple self interest.

Is there a bottom line for a humans? A first law? I don’t know but I trust that most people will seek a balance between what is in their interest and what is right. Without that trust, democracy simply cannot survive.

As long as the first law of corporations is the bottom line there will be no moral balance. They will pursue their own interests with all the power at their disposal even if it means loosing hell on the Earth.

We need new programming and we need it now.

Here are my three laws. They’re not perfect but they are a start.

1. A corporation must not knowingly do lasting damage to the planet or the people who live on it.
2. A corporation has a responsibility to the health and well being of the people it employs.
3. A corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to it’s shareholders as long as that responsibility does not interfere with the First or Second Law.

Some people will be shocked when they look at these laws. They will think, “How can we make big corporations promise to care for the planet or their employees.” Believe it or not, I had the same reaction when I came up with these laws.

And, in a way, that is the most shocking thing of all. It is a sign of how warped our sensibilities have become when asking for moral responsibility from the most powerful entities on the planet seems crazy.

The truth is we have loosed soulless automatons upon the Earth far more powerful than anything Asimov could have imagined and if we don’t find a way to reprogram them with responsibility and compassion, they will destroy us.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Reversing The Moral Compass (or Trickle Up)

Who do you worry about more, the rich or the poor? The powerful or the disenfranchised? The man in the Rolls Royce or the man working three jobs to send his kids to college?

The answer should be obvious but, for some reason, it isn’t.

Somehow we have been convinced that the wealthiest Americans are under siege by the poorest and that the future of our nation is directly dependent on the greediest and most selfish of its citizens.

It shouldn’t really be surprising. Whether it is Feudal lords viscously taxing their farmers, Imperial Russia and their serfs or America being built on the backs of its slaves, the rich and powerful have always stood with their feet firmly planted on the necks of the poor and they justify their actions with racism, classism, social Darwinism and every other rationalization.

While every major religion lists charity, compassion and sacrifice among its virtues, there has been, of late, a conscious distortion of morality. Today, more than half of our deadliest sins, Pride, Gluttony, Envy, and, of course, Greed, are seen as admirable. In fact, our so called, “consumer” economy, is predicated on the idea that Greed consumption and selfishness are not only good for us but good for everyone.

This is a lie.

Unfortunately, it is also a very successful lie.

One of the cornerstones of that lie is “trickle down” economics. The idea, pushed by the Reagan administration in the early 1980’s that tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy would stimulate the economy and eventually those benefits would “trickle down” to all Americans, even the very poor. This economic philosophy has been called many things over the years including Reagannomics and Supply side, but I still think the best name came from George H.W. Bush when he called it “Voodoo economics”.

I wont argue about whether or not lower taxes on the richest Americans encourage investment in the economy. Give a rich guy more money and he will invest more money. The question is, does it benefit anyone else? Even a cursory glance at the last 30 years of American history should tell you that the answer is, unequivocally “no”

The rich have certainly gotten richer in the last 30 years but the poor and middle class have only gotten poorer. In 1981 (at the beginning of “Trickle Down”) the average CEO in this country made 43 times more than his average worker. Today they make somewhere between 185 and 263 times more (depending on where you get your statistics) Doe that sound like wealth is trickling down?

In the last decade income for the bottom 90% of Americans has increased 3.9% (well behind cost of living) while income for the wealthiest .1% has almost doubled. The rich are getting much richer and everyone else is getting killed.

But what about all that money we gave to the wealthy so they could invest in our economy? What happened to all the jobs they were supposed create? Where did they go?

Again, the answer should be obvious. They were outsourced.

You see, the problem here isn’t just economic. It is cultural. Once you say that greed and selfishness are good, then anything you can do to make more money is absolutely justified. If unionized American workers are too expensive... Fine. We can find cheaper workers where they don’t have unions or safety regulations or child labor laws. That call center in Tennessee is costing you an arm and a leg... Fine. You can build a new call center for half the price elsewhere.

Cheaper workers mean more money, but not for everyone.

Still, we all know that increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans will hurt the economy, right?


In the late 1940’s and 50’s tax rates on the wealthiest Americans were above 60% (approximately twice what they are at today). Did the economy collapse? No. It boomed. It was, in fact, one of the greatest periods of growth in American history. The difference is, in the fifties, that growth was across all economic classes, with the middle class benefiting the most. We were also able to use that revenue to build the interstate highway system (which further helped the economy), vastly increase the national parks and launch a space program.

Am I saying we need to go back to 60%? Absolutely not. However, the people that are telling you that asking multi-millionaires to kick in a little more will wreck the economy are lying to you.

Lies, in fact, are one of the major investments they’ve made with their tax breaks. Billions have been spent through news media, through advertising and through high paid lobbyists to spread the gospel that greed is good and that our wealthiest citizens are also our best citizens.

First they took aim at the poorest among us, the ones least likely to fight back, the welfare mother, the juvenile delinquent, and the illegal alien. (all of which are disparaging titles given to those people by the wealthy elite)

The poor are characterized as lazy and dishonest, unworthy not only of assistance but even of compassion. They are, in fact, what is dragging America down. The suber-rich on the other hand, the ones who bankrupted our nation with their greed, the ones who we have spent trillions to bail out, they are characterized as our nation’s saviors.

That is the message that dominates our country today and it is that message that we must defeat at all costs.

Because now, it’s not enough to demonize the very poor and disenfranchised. Now, they are moving up to the middle class (or, more accurately, what used to be the middle class) Apparently it is the civil servants who are the real problem. The policemen, firemen and teachers.


The Wealthiest 1% of Americans receive 700 Billion dollars in tax cuts last year but the people who dedicate their lives to helping children, people who have already endured multiple salary and benefit cuts, people who have seen their responsibilities and class sizes grow while their text books age and their supports dissolves are being greedy when they ask for a living wage and a few benefits.

It makes you wonder who they will come after next.

Our Veterans?

No, the soldiers who served our country “with the last full measure of devotion” have already seen their health benefits cut, their pensions destroyed and the GI Bill stripped down to nothing.

In the end, that wealthiest 1% will come after all of us because once you declare that Greed is good everything that serves greed is, by definition, justified.

If you hate the idea of people living and benefiting off the public dole... Fine. But ask yourself this, who is more worthy of your condemnation, the Mother who has to stretch her welfare check to feed her children, or the profitable corporation which receives billions of dollars in federal subsidies.

Last year the oil industry received sixty billion dollars in federal money while earning record profits.

This moral shift has manifested itself in another way as well.

Things which can make money for someone are valuable. Things which pay non-economic dividends are not. Government services which can be monetized such as prisons, social security, the military and health care should be privatized. Services which cannot be monetized such as the FDA, EPA, education, national parks and, of course, public broadcasting should simply be cut.

The wealthiest Americans have used their power and influence to turn our moral compass upside down. They have succeeded in casting themselves in the role of victim while transforming the poor, the hungry, the sick, the veteran, the civil servant and the teacher into the villain.

I am not saying the rich are all evil or that Americans shouldn’t strive to improve their economic position. I am merely saying that we can choose where to invest, not only our dollars, but our care, our compassion and our empathy.

We have spent the last thirty years believing that wealth could trickle down only to watch that wealth pool in the hands of the few while the many only grow poorer. It is time, I believe, to reverse that trend and see if wealth can trickle up.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Profit Motive

About fifteen years ago I got into an argument with an old friend about the battle between VHS and Beta. My point was that while VHS eventually won the day, Beta was, in fact, the superior product. It was more dependable, cheaper to manufacture and had better video quality. He argued that because VHS won the format war, it was, by definition, superior. This argument seemed so innately circular that it took me a while to even understand what he was saying.

My argument was technological, his was Darwinian. For him, a businessman, the definition of superiority was, whatever survives, which is another way of saying, whatever makes the most money.

I have been reminded of this argument many times over the years and the older I got the more I came to see that our system, the American, capitalist system, almost always equates profitability with quality.

This argument is used constantly in the national debate on the role of government & the private sector. Whether we are talking about Social Security, healthcare, prisons or the military, the argument remains the same. Public run institutions are, by their nature, corrupt, bloated and wasteful, while private, for profit, institutions are efficient, innovative and, of course, profitable. If they are making money they must, by definition be doing a good job.


(Personally, I’ve always had problems with this argument as there are many well run government organizations and many terribly run private ones.)

Today, that same argument is being used against public broadcasting in the battle to eliminate federal support for NPR & PBS. The argument is simple, if people really wanted Sesame Street or Nova or This American Life, they would pay for it. Or, another way of putting it, the value of the product is determined only by the profit it can generate.

Non Profit=Bad

By that definition, NPR, PBS and a thousand other government programs and charitable organizations, from Soup Kitchens to after school programs, have no value or, at least, the services they provide could be improved by adding a profit motive.

This philosophy is not only patently false but also deeply destructive.

Most corporations will tell you that they are in the business of making money and the products and services they provide are merely the means to achieving those profitable ends. Ford builds cars in order to make money. Fed Ex delivers packages in order to make money.

Fair enough.

However, how would you feel if the doctor, who is treating your mom’s cancer told you he was prescribing a particular form of Chemo in order to make a buck? Would you trust that he is absolutely dedicated to your mother’s care or would you run screaming from the room?

How would you feel if the people who’s job it is to make sure your food is safe are the same people who profit from their sales?

Now think about our increasingly privatized military and the military industrial complex which supports it. Do we really want profit to be the deciding factor in whether or not we go to war? If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you need to take a long hard look at how America works.

It’s not that I have a problem with doctors (or any body else) making a buck. However, a doctor, food regulator or military organization who is primarily motived by profit is a danger to my mom, the food supply and the rest of the world.

Perhaps more importantly, there are some jobs which simply wont be done by people looking to make a buck. No one dedicates their lives to helping inner city kids, protecting our forests, or even charting the origins of the universe for the money. Those jobs and hundreds of others like them are made no less important by the fact that they are unprofitable. Actually they are only unprofitable in a financial sense. They are hugely profitable in other ways.

Which brings me back to NPR & PBS. I have no problem whatsoever with for profit entertainment. If you write a song, produce a show or act in a movie which captures the public’s imagination, you should, make a lot of money. However, one journey through the channels on your television or glance at the movies in your local multiplex should give you an idea of just how low the entertainment industry is willing to stoop to get your dollar.

It’s a lot like fast food. Pump the product full of empty calories, throw it in a colorful package, market the hell out of it and start counting the money. It might make people sick in the long run but short term profit is all they care about.

And, make no mistake, this is making us sick. One look at 24 hour cable news can show you just how infectious and destructive the profit motive can be to our national psyche. If it bleeds it’ leads and in the end, the ones left bleeding are us.

Perhaps even more destructive is the world of children’s programming. Remember that doctor who told you he was treating your mom’s cancer for the money? Well the digital baby sitter you trust your seven year old with has the exact same motivation.

Again, I have no problem with the profit motive. I don’t care if game shows are designed to sell cars or if football exists to sell beer. I’m even happy to have kids get toys of their favorite cartoon characters. (I certainly was happy to play with those toys when I was a kid)

What I have a problem with is that the choice of what to show us is not motivated by truth or fairness or a sense of what is important for us to know, see or feel, but by profit alone.

This is why the quality of the material on public broadcasting is fundamentally different form what we see and hear everywhere else and why it is desperately important that we, as a nation, continue to fund a tiny sliver of programming whose value comes not from a monetary dividend but rather from a societal one.

The cost of public programming works out to approximately $1.25 per person. In other words for about the cost of a single song on itunes and far less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks we get radio and television who’s only motivation is to produce programming which is good for us. Personally, I think this is a $1.25 that we can’t afford not to spend.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why we should Kill the Networks

(and maybe take a big chunk out of the cable companies while we are at it.)

Here’s what I want to do. I want to turn on the TV and watch whatever the hell I want to watch whenever the hell I want to watch it and I’m willing to pay for the privilege (but not too much)

Most of you probably feel the same way.

A few years ago, this would have been completely impossible but today the technological roadblocks have been solved. Unfortunately, the powerful corporations which run our media system are too myopic, inflexible and, often times, too greedy to change.

Well run companies use advances in technology to make their products better, cheaper and more efficient. Poorly run companies cling to outdated ideas while calmly denying all the evidence of their own imminent demise.

The American auto industry is an excellent example of this. For decades they used their considerable political and economic power to make big inefficient cars. While this policy led to huge profits in the short term, their failure to adapt to changes in technology and the market led them to near collapse in 2008.

The same can be said of the music industry who saw digital distribution, not as an opportunity to deliver their product more efficiently, but as a threat to their status quo. The result has been more than a decade of instability.

Hollywood today faces many of the same issues and yet they seem to be even more deeply entrenched within a labyrinthian system that is inefficient, often counter productive and completely outmoded.

One of the objections to a purely online TV system is that consumers don’t want to pay for their content. What we fail to bring in to this equation is that we are already paying for content. In fact, we are paying quite a bit.

The American consumer, pays an average of $58 per month for cable or satellite TV (not including fees for Broadband internet access) And, frighteningly enough, that average consumer watches approximately 26 hours of TV per week. If we round off the numbers that works out to around fifty cents per hour.

Of course, that’s not really all we’re paying because the vast majority of television we watch is, so-called, “free TV”. Free TV means that the costs of the shows themselves are paid for by advertisers. During the Golden Age of TV that worked out to about 5 minutes of commercials per hour. Today, we see somewhere between 16 and 22 minutes of commercials per hour.

In other words, we are spending fifty cents to buy around forty minutes of programming and twenty minutes of commercials.

The question is, “Is it possible to spend the same money (or even less) to get better content delivered in a more efficient manner?”

Most media experts today would tell you that the answer is “no”. However, they are basing that conclusion on the way that Hollywood is run today, rather than on how it could be run tomorrow.

What if it were possible to streamline (even a little bit) the morass of bureaucracies, lawyers and red tape of the studios, networks, agents, managers, sponsors, cable & Satellite companies, local affiliates and production companies that make up the television system.

To do so we must first distill this complex system down to the essential service it is supposed to provide. That service, as I see it, is this:

(and yes, I know this model is over simplified)

There is a product, “The Show”. A method of distribution, “The Pipe” and a consumer, “The Viewer”. As in any industry, the variables of success are the quality of the product and the cost at which it can be produced and delivered to the consumer. The only thing left after that is for the consumer to decide if the product is desirable.

Here is what actually happens (and this too is vastly over-simplified) A filmmaker wants to make a show. He takes it to his agent who tells him how to mold the show to what a studio might want. After reworking the show he takes it to the studio (who will produce the show) and enters the development process. In development the studio tries to shape the show into one they can sell to a particular network.

Frequently, shaping the show to sell, also means making it better. There are some absolutely fantastic development executives in the industry who are committed to producing great television. They are, however, in the minority and all development executives know that a great show that doesn’t sell is worthless.

“Sell” is the key word here but we are not talking about selling a product to a consumer. We are a long way from that. Junior executives must sell to senior executives. Producers must sell to the studios. Studios to the Networks and the Networks to advertisers and local affiliates. Only after passing through this incredibly complex and expensive crucible does the show have a chance to sell to us, the consumers.

By this point, the number of people commenting on a project, from marketing consultants, to product placement experts and even toy manufacturers is absolutely mind boggling and naturally all those cooks have offices, lawyers, assistants and benefits packages. In other words, they cost money.

Dozens of scripts are bought but most are never made into pilots. Of the pilots that are made only a handful are ever actually aired. Of the shows that get picked up, half of them will not make it to a second season and many don’t make it to the second episode.

Maybe the project wasn’t marketed well, or maybe it was placed in a terrible time slot. Maybe the show needed more time to hit it’s stride or maybe it just plain sucked. The problem is, that in a system as complex as the one used to create TV shows it’s almost impossible to go back and trace what exactly went wrong, which means there is no guarantee that the network wont make the same mistake next season or even over and over again.

What we do know is that this system is extremely inefficient and expensive making it even more difficult to succeed in a market which is already incredibly speculative.

It is this wasteful and inefficient system which costs you, the consumer, 50 cents and 20 minutes of commercials an hour.

If you could eliminate, or at least reduce, a few of the middlemen you could also reduce the cost of the show and, in my opinion, improve the quality.

Let’s start with the network.

These are the guys who really run the television industry. They take the biggest slice of the money and exercise the largest share of control over what you see.

There is a reason for this. Back when everyone got their content over the air you needed a network because the only way to distribute a program nationally was through a network of local affiliates who had access to the big broadcast towers in every major market. In fact, that’s where the term “Network” comes from.

Today, however, only 13% of American’s get their content over the air from local affiliates. The rest of us pay cable and Satellite providers. In other words 87% of Americans do not need a network of local affiliates to get their content. So, why are we giving the lions share of both creative control and profits to the big networks?

The other middlemen are the cable and satellite companies. As I said earlier, the average American watches about 26 hours of television a month but they are actually paying for thousands more. Today, our cable and satellite systems are clogged with 100s of channels we never actually watch. Why? I don’t want to pay for the golf channel or the home shopping network. Maybe you don’t want to pay for comedy central or Sci Fi. Is this an efficient system?

Efficient or not, it is a system which you have little choice in as most US markets are serviced by only one or two providers.

Compare this Network/Cable model to a simple broadband system.

More than 58% of Americans have a broadband connection capable of streaming HIDef video directly to their TV. This number is growing every year. Why then are we still paying a cable company and a network of local affiliates to deliver content to us?

Why don’t we just pay the people who make the content and have them deliver that content over our broadband connection? Why can’t those people make deals directly with advertisers if they want to distribute that product for free or at a reduced cost?

Remember that fifty cents an hour? Remember those twenty minutes of commercials? Both of those represent big money and without the networks and cable companies taking a huge slice out of that pie, I believe that all the TV in the world you want could be delivered for that much money or even less.

A fringe benefit of the online model is that it eliminates the power of the time slot. Today, if a show gets put up against a juggernaut like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, it is almost certainly doomed no matter how good it might be. Why are we still doing this?

I also believe that by eliminating at least a few of the cooks involved in deciding what gets made and what gets broadcast we can improve both the quality and the variety of content.

The networks will claim that the American people aren’t ready for a truly digital distribution system but I believe that is changing before our eyes. Netflix and HuluPlus both deliver unlimited content for $7.99 a month. Netflix Instant is particularly successful. In fact, they are so successful that Comcast is about to sue them.

The AppleTV and Roku box are other examples of how eager we are to change the television viewing experience. Both of them have sold over a million units this holiday season.

The point is, it can be done. In fact, it’s being done right now. The main obstacles are the powers that be, particularly the Studios, networks, and cable companies who are so desperate not to change a system that is failing that they are willing to bring the whole industry down around their ears. It is also why they are currently pressuring congress to break Net Neutrality.

We often speak of “Show Business” as a world where art and commerce are perpetually at odds. However, this is an instance where I believe the goals of art and commerce are perfectly aligned. By making the system more efficient we both create greater creative opportunities for artists and more cost effective and profitable products for everyone.

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