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Economics History The Web and Technology

The only sustainable business advantage

On September 5, 1882, the Knights of Labor celebrated the first Labor Day in New York City’s Union Square.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights were an unusual organization for their day, eschewing radicalism and enrolling all segments of labor :

  • from skilled to unskilled workers;
  • from managers to sharecroppers; and
  • including recent immigrants, African Americans, and women.

They only excluded “ the unproductive members of society “: bankers, gamblers, lawyers, and liquor manufacturers.

They did not divide management and labor, as later movements did. The Knights deemed the true threat to a well-functioning business to be those that did not value their employees as human beings, the unscrupulous robber barons. They demanded that businesses allow employees their rightful voice at the decision-making table. (As well as for the government to prohibit exploitative and unsafe work conditions and child labor.)

The Knights kept their member list secret to prevent retaliation from the robber barons. For years, the robber barons used every economic and judicial tool to silence the voices of the employees. Within a decade, paramilitary action decimated the Knights of Labor in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair and the Thibodaux massacre .

As other groups rose up to fill the void, they separated skilled and unskilled workers, management and factory workers. The hard-won rights that were finally enacted into law reflected this splintering. They protected factory-type workers, who represented only one side of the Knights of Labor coalition and excluded groups ranging from sharecroppers to managers.

The destructive short-term mentality of private equity

Today, technical innovation has made these protections obsolete. Everyone is a manager – of contractors and technology. Automation has enabled machines to take on some tasks, from automated teller machines to machine translation. The gig economy has allowed owners to rent out idle resources (their time, language expertise, cars and homes). Every service business is now a tech-enabled service business.

Venture capital firms, using the Giant Pool of Money at the center of the world economy, drove this disruptive, but value-creating innovation. But there is a darker side. Venture capital is only a small portion of the $100 trillion shadow banking system . This shadow system employs thousands to wring profits from this Giant Pool of Money rather than to create value. Endemic corruption (legal and illegal) ensures that this shadow system works hand in hand with the more regulated banking system.

As President Obama said, when the “priority is to maximize profits – that’s not always going to be good for businesses or communities or workers.” This corruption works by maximizing short-term, inflated profits at the expense of long-term profit derived from actual value. And it ensures that there are no losers among the banks and consulting agencies and lawyers. The only losers are among the businesses, communities, and employees who are in it for the long-term.

The key insight came to me when a friend working in finance told me that I kept thinking like an operator, rather than someone in finance. What he meant was that an operator tries to build a business – with products, processes, teams – that creates value and that sustains it.

But for someone in finance their profit is derived not from value created over time, but from proximity to an immediately profitable deal. To the wrong type of financier, people and customer loyalty are expendable things to be used and then discarded in return for a quick profit. (Footnote 1.)

The destructive cycle is inevitable :

Once the buyout is completed, the private equity guys start swinging the meat axe, aggressively cutting costs wherever they can – so that the company can start paying off its new debt – by laying off workers and cutting capital costs…

It takes several years before the impacts of this predatory activity – reduced customer service, inferior products – become fully apparent, but by that time the private equity firm has generally resold the business at a profit and moved on.

I’ve seen this play out in news stories. The leader in my own industry went through a dramatic restruring as it prepared to sell itself to private equity:

  • pushing out many of it’s top innovators and the leaders who built the company’s value and brand; and
  • outsourcing it’s production centers to lower cost centers as it cut costs.

This is the absolute opposite of the Value Investing that Warren Buffett advocates. It’s bad for the economy. It’s bad for most people. But it sure makes a killing for a handful of companies in the short-term.

The only sustainable competitive advantage

Last September in San Francisco, the co-CEO of my company told a group of clients:

In my 24 years as CEO, I have learned one big thing. All competitive advantages – price, quality, even technology – are commoditized over a long-enough time horizon. They only way to have a sustainable competitive advantage is people.

That is the type of company I want to work for; and today, it is the company I am proud to work for. I’m proud of the products my team has created , and the successes, both for clients and internally. I’m proud of the team for coming together again and again in the midst of adversity and distraction.

But our economy is filled with vultures; and it’s hard to turn down a quick profit, no matter the pangs of conscience. With barbarians at the gate, what are we to do? The Hollywood ending calls for Richard Gere to realize that he no longer wants to rip companies apart for short-term profits. Instead, he wants to help them build a better boats.

But in reality, greed outstrips morality most days of the week. But for this one day, in honor of Labor Day:

  • we should all reflect on the company we work for;
  • we should reflect on our position and the value we offer;
  • we should look at whether we have a voice at the decision-making table today and in the future; and
  • we should think about the type of society we want to live in, and whether our actions today are helping to create that society.

For if we don’t, we are destined to be mere cogs in a machine, waiting to be outsourced.


[Political posts have been…let’s say rarer from me. My professional page is now at ]

Footnote 1: A cartoon villain of an attorney once told me and a group of employees that private equity firms “could staff [the company I work for] in a week with people of…equal, if not superior talents.”

Barack Obama Election 2012 Humor Romney The Opinionsphere Videos

Romney Flip Flips Again, Chooses Biden as VP

[reddit-me]As Bill Clinton said at the 2008 convention, “I love Joe Biden.”

All night, Biden hammered Ryan with his words and gestures and Ryan stuck to his talking points. While Obama seemed withdrawn in the face of Romney’s dazzling, primetime flip-flop to the center, Biden was prepared for Ryan to do the same and instead of retreating in incredulousness as this right-wing duo feigned outrage at their longstanding positions being accurately described, Biden took turns chuckling and looking aghast.

After that performance, I’m just waiting for Mitt’s next opportunistic flip flop as he announces his new VP pick, Joe Biden.

Gay Rights Politics

Not All Church Signs Are Stupid

The progressive church down the block on me that I pass on my way home from work that made headlines for using their sign to take on Glenn Beck also apparently supports gay rights :


I always think of this church’s signs as a rejoinder to those idiotic ones that usually make the rounds through email, reddit, and elsewhere.

Not all religious people are idiots.

Of course: line dancing? Really?

[Image hastily snapped with my Droid walking home.]

Barack Obama National Security The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

The Winklevoss Twins of Getting Bin Laden

Why are we listening to the Bush administration officials anyway? They didn’t get Bin Laden. They’re like the Winklevoss Twins of getting Bin Laden. If you were the guys who were going to kill Bin Laden, you would have killed Bin Laden!

Jon Stewart on last night’s Daily Show.

[reddit-me]When Bin Laden was killed, many of my more right-wing friends were oddly silent. Rather than the relief I and so many others felt, they seemed discomfited — not by the tactics or legality or potential consequences of the action, but by a cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile their visceral dislike of Obama as anti-American and perhaps even sympathetic to terrorists and their approval of his actions. Then Rush Limbaugh gave them the defense mechanism they needed — and suddenly it became glaringly obvious to them that Obama was taking too much credit for the operation, that he had used first person pronouns way too much in the speech. (Though the words of the speech don’t bear that out.)

But worse than Limbaugh’s attempts to insulate his audience from that uncomfortable feeling of challenging their preconceptions about Obama are the former Bush administration officials’ attempts to take credit for themselves, using this triumph of American military force and intelligence to justify their subversion of both.

As outrageous as it sound, the contemporaneous record reflects that the Bush administration prioritized Saddam over Bin Laden shortly after 9/11 and was unwilling to provide the boots on the ground or even drones urgently requested by the CIA and Special Forces tracking Bin Laden in the aftermath. The Bush administration was unwilling to provide the Pakistani army the air transport they claimed they needed to move troops to the border to secure it even as the Bush administration relieved relied upon and trusted the Pakistani army to secure their wild and lawless border to cut off Bin Laden’s escape. Worse still, the “intelligence” provided by illegal, tortured confessions in contradiction of America’s long military and intelligence history were used to justify the Bush administration’s belief that Saddam and Bin Laden were working together on a WMD attack on America — and later, this same intelligence sources under torture, provided the basis for shutting down the team focused on finding Bin Laden , as they pretended he was a mere figurehead. (A logical bit of information to make up if you wanted an interrogation to end and you couldn’t give them the actionable intelligence to find Bin Laden they wanted.) It was this last bit of intelligence which the former Bush administration officials claim credit for being used to find Bin Laden :

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

Obama, upon taking office, did not do anything incredible. What he did do was to apply some common sense that the panic-stricken and Iraq-obsessed Bush administration had missed — he re-focused the national security apparatus on destroying Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. That’s why drone attacks began to increase when he became president. That’s part of the reason why he surged troops into Afghanistan. That’s why — as a candidate — Obama promised that he would go into Pakistan after Bin Laden even if the Pakistanis did not sanction the operation. (This bit of common sense caused Hillary Clinton and John McCain to slam him for his position.) That’s why the Bin Laden operation was so carefully planned for , with every possible scenario gamed out — from scenarios where the Special Forces needed to fight their way out of Pakistan to teams ready to interrogate him.

There was certainly a great deal of luck involved — and if the Bush administration had been presented with the same opportunity to get Bin Laden, I’m sure they would have taken it. But surely it is not a coincidence that the administration that had higher priorities than finding Bin Laden let him slip through their fingers several times while the administration that focused the mighty resources of the United States military and intelligence apparatus on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden found the opportunity that had failed to present itself for seven long years under Bush’s leadership.

Leadership matters. It’s a little too late to take credit now.

Barack Obama Criticism National Security Politics Post 9/11 Generation The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

In Response To Those Disturbed By Celebrating on the Death of Bin Laden

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started seeing this quote popping up in my Facebook feed last night. In response, let me say 2 things:

(1) It’s fake. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say that. It’s loosely based on this quote .

(2) Do you remember your first time watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid? That feeling of elation in the moments after the witch melted and the munchkins and everyone else began to sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!”?

Whether rational or not, the figure of Osama Bin Laden — and our inability to find him — has loomed over our consciousness since September 11. His survival despite America’s might directed against him, despite the abhorrence of his crimes, suggested impotence and an inability to control events and affect our own fate. The knowledge that not only did he survive, but he continued to plan to kill and terrorize — that at any moment, some decision of his which we had no way of affecting could wreck the lives of thousands, even our own — loomed over us. But on May 1, 2011, order was restored and the villain taken down. And that is a catharsis worthy of storybooks. [reddit-me]

Voices urging restraint and caution at such moments of national catharsis are good and worthy. Because moments of catharsis can be distorted — they can turn to ugly emotions. Wisdom counsels that we “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.”  It is unseemly to celebrate murder — and all too easy to demonize one’s enemies to justify resorting to violence. But as another wise man said,  “ A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .”

And it was Martin Luther King who said, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” — and even as this prophet of non-violence may not have condoned it — in Bin Laden’s violent end by American hands, there was justice.

An evil man who claimed theological justification and technological means to murder millions; who inspired, authorized and directed the killing of thousands; who wanted women confined to a second-class status; who directed the killings of the vast majority of Muslims as unclean unbelievers — an evil man who murdered 3,000 souls on one fateful September morning — this Sunday, he was removed from this world.

And the world is better for it.

And for that, we should all celebrate.

[Image by Dan Nguyen @ New York City licensed under Creative Commons.]

Criticism Domestic issues Immigration Politics Videos

Bloomberg: How To Use Immigration Policy to Save Detroit

[reddit-me]Three thoughts regarding this suggestion by Mayor Bloomberg on Meet the Press yesterday morning:

1) This is exactly the sort of sensible, pragmatic suggestion that Bloomberg is known for — that is business-focused but would never get through any Democratic or Republican legislature because of the anti-immigrant backlash.  But it’s a good idea — and one grounded in the American tradition — as Matt Yglesias explained a year ago — similar to the homesteading policies that the U.S. used to encourage settlers to move West. Which leads me to my next point.

2) When I heard Bloomberg say this, I thought: “Aha! I wonder if he reads Matt Yglesias too!” Probably a silly thought — as Bloomberg spends his days focused on urban policy. But when I first heard Bloomberg say it, I had thought this was one of Yglesias’s many excellent ideas — but as I read his original post , it was instead one of the many interesting ideas that Yglesias brings to his audience from other sources.

3) Bloomberg’s approach to government is so successful because it is pragmatic and businesslike. But this comment also reveals what he misses. He uses the rather obnoxious line that any business run as the government is would fail. Of course! That’s part of why we have a government — to perform tasks that aren’t profitable but are still necessary. Bloomberg explains how politicians fail to act like businessmen by focusing on “issues they can’t come together on.” For a company, it makes a lot of sense to steer your company away from any matter on which their isn’t agreement. But politics is precisely where these ideas are hashed out. Of course, the tendency of some purists to insist on halting all action until the other side gives in needs to be balanced with the pragmatism that all successful businessmen and politicians have in common.

Criticism Domestic issues Libertarianism Political Philosophy The Opinionsphere The Web and Technology

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

[reddit-me]Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened . Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said :

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[…] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch ) — and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you .

Criticism Domestic issues Economics Law Libertarianism Political Philosophy Politics The Web and Technology

Capitalism in Practice

[reddit-me]I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch , a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair ,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

Barack Obama Domestic issues Fiscal Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

Paul Ryan’s America

[reddit-me]Paul Ryan launched an attack on Barack Obama’s deficit speech last week — calling it “ excessively partisan .”

Which is interesting considering his own approach to the budget deficit which he called “an existential threat to all we hold dear”: Balance the budget without offending a single Republican.

Over a year ago, I described the conundrum Republicans faced as the deficit they were fuming against was largely a result of policies that benefited their own constituencies . Those over 55 who were the only demographic group to vote Republican (even in the Democratic wave years of 2006 and 2008) benefited the most from the trillion dollars spend on Medicare and Social Security. Our military spending nearly matched the rest of the world’s combined — and if you include other national security spending — totaling another trillion. And then there were the various tax incentives and loopholes for big corporations adding up to another few hundred billion dollars. Further, Republicans were committed to not raising taxes on anyone — especially the richest.

Paul Ryan was faced with the unenviable task of squaring this circle. In an effort that nearly everyone described as “serious,” Ryan managed to put forth a plan with no prospect of passing at all — and one that managed to place the entire burden of balancing the budget on the backs of Democratic constituencies . The military was left alone. The base of the Republican party and driver of most of the debt — the elderly — was left alone. Corporations were rewarded with a lower tax rate with some vague talk of eliminating their enormous tax subsidies.

Though Ryan kept saying the pain of balancing the budget would be shared by everyone — his plan was really about cutting off support for those left behind in our society. The rich and elderly were rewarded — even as they accumulate more and more of the nation’s wealth; the middle class were mainly left alone; and the young and the poor were cut off.

That doesn’t sound like the path to a dynamic and prosperous society to me.

Paul Ryan’s future is one where my generation must be prepared to support our parents as they become the test subjects in the biggest social experiment in history: As Medicare becomes a voucher program growing at much lower than the rate of health care inflation, in the hopes that this will slow it down. Meanwhile, my generation must be saving more than any generation in history as we prepare to pay for our own medical costs.

Ryan’s plan is many things:  If taken seriously, it is an attack on all non-Republican constituencies. If implemented, it would be a grand ideological experiment that barely considers the lives of those it would affect which Republicans would normally call “social engineering.”

But most of all, the Ryan plan is (as Slate ‘s John Dickerson said in Friday’s Political Gabfest ), a “bold negotiating position.”

[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.]