At the Edge: Survival Tips for Baby Boomers

For the remainder of the typical Baby Boomer’s life the United States will likely be in decline, which will put Boomers—much more than others—in a very precarious position.  But, that does not mean one cannot survive and prosper, although it may require re-defining your life and a whole lot of work.

Following the Federal debt debacle, the subsequent market sell-off, and the downgrade of U.S Treasuries by Standard & Poor’s, I received a Friday evening email from a financial consultant (to “Our Valued Clients”) that implored their valued ones to avoid panic.  They (all much younger than I) wrote: “We urge clients to take a deep breath, relax, and not react emotionally to what we are seeing in the market.”  While I was nowhere near panicking—perhaps because I have come to accept devaluation due to systemic risk (and because I’ve already changed my own investment strategy)—it struck me that if they were concerned enough to send out such an email after-hours on a Friday in August, then maybe I should panic.

The markets after all, like Mother Nature, are incapable of emotional irrationality.  They are the final arbiter of value and instantaneous purveyor of consequence.  They are the highest expression of our collective expectations.  They reveal the (stubborn) truth that is (finally) piercing the veil of denial embedded in the advisor’s call for calm. Panic may actually be a rational choice for a Boomer who is facing this truth.  After all, the timeframe for capitulation and recovery may exceed the Boomer’s lifespan.  Indeed, the market meltdown that followed on Monday suggests panic may be the new norm.  Of course, many financial analysts and pundits immediately rolled out their feel-better rhetoric claiming what we had seen was an aberration or “disconnect,” which is their unwitting acknowledgment that they have no idea what is happening.  One thing is certain, however:  leaving your money in their hands is in their best interest.

The truth the markets have expressed can be summed up as follows: while most of us know what the right thing to do is (setting aside those addled by ideology, misplaced faith, or engaged in modern-day piracy), we lack the will to do it.  This is and has always been the case for Americans. As Winston Churchill once observed, “The Americans will always do the right thing after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”  The most glaring historical example is slavery.  The Founding Fathers—evidenced by their own writings—knew that slavery was inherently wrong, yet they did nothing about it (notwithstanding presidential aspirant Michelle Bachman’s twisted historical interpretation).  It took nearly one hundred years to breach the legal threshold and emancipate slaves, then another hundred to leap the moral threshold and get rid of the racist work-arounds like the Jim Crow laws.

What is required to clean up the financial and political mess in the United States is relatively easy to identify, but impossible to execute.  There are four things that must be done.  We must make at least $4 trillion in expenditure cuts including restructuring Medicare and Social Security, endure increased taxes in the near term, overhaul/simplify the tax code, and redesign Congress (starting with term limits).  Failure to do all of these things will accelerate the precipitous decline of the United States as the wealthiest and most powerful state in the global system, but none of these things will be accomplished; at least not as a matter of will.  The consequences of this are dire and probably worth panicking about.

Today’s obvious and unbelievable stupidity displayed by our elected representatives is no different than the stubbornness that protected slavery and segregation, except this time we all—not just slaves—will suffer.[1]  It would be ahistorical and irrational to believe we will act better or more quickly in dealing with our financial woes than we did when committing prior sins or facing crises.  While democracies are arguably inherently good, they are not designed to exalt morality or pre-empt crises. Our lesser selves do not assure better governance via aggregation.  In open systems, the best one can hope for is that crises will produce creative destruction, which is what is happening now. There is, however, an alternative for Boomers to limit their exposure and preserve their long-term well-being.

Boomers must re-imagine and restructure their lives.  Succeeding generations have less baggage to shed and are (sigh) more attractive to employers.  The winning strategy since World War II has been to align one’s self with big companies, big governments with big militaries, and big markets.  Get a job with a large enterprise—public or private—and climb the ladder.  Invest in big money-center financial markets and count on a 7% after-tax return.  Expect the government to provide healthcare and a financial safety net beginning at age sixty-five.  That strategy is not only dead; it has become dangerous because of its exposure to systemic risk.  Now is the time to simplify, disconnect, and sustain.

Simplify.  Get small and remain flexible.  Reduce your footprint and keep your running shoes nearby.  Eliminate stuff; sell it or give it away.  Invest in yourself first, especially your mind and body.  Get things right in your head and heart: smart and content.  Next, invest in things you control.  Then, invest in companies that play at the edges—that rely on their own balance sheet to fund their future and which are highly adaptive.  Leverage wisdom.  Avoid the whiz-bang dreamers.  Boring companies make more money, longer.  But remember: it’s not about wealth; it’s about well-being.  Take time to appreciate nature, art, music, and literature.  From simplicity comes peace-of-mind and well-being.

Disconnect.  Minimize your exposure to systemic risk.  Focus on the quality of your connections and relationships, not the quantity.  Size and scale are no longer de facto advantages.  De-leverage your own balance sheet as much as possible.  If able, move to a town that has a history of self-reliance; where services are few but the basic stuff works, and Boomers are still employable.  If you must live in a large city, form small communities (actual or virtual) within the city or within your neighborhood, but do not be constrained by geography or borders. Whenever possible, leverage technology to create your own reliable world.  Alliances are still important, but choose your cohorts carefully.  Large collectives will be unable to avoid systemic risk.  Again, think small to evade collateral damage.

Sustain.  Within means and with respect.  Channel your inner hippie.  Feed your soul.  Embrace an ethos of sustainability.  Ask yourself when making large and small decisions: is this option sustainable?  Am I using resources in a manner that respects their origin?  The so-called “permaculture movement” is worth exploring to identify ways to support sustainable agriculture and urban food gardening.  “The ethic of permaculture is the movement’s Nicene Creed … care of the earth; care of the people, and a return of surplus time, energy, and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people.”[2]  This may sound a bit squishy until you realize sustainability is essentially what our grandparents called self-reliance.

The foreseeable future in the United States is grim.  We lack the will to do the right thing.  Our system of collective action is broken.  But, we can always act on our own to re-imagine our lives, form new alliances, and make a new future for ourselves.

[1] While many deplore Congress but like their own representative, I am not among them.  My Congressman, Michael Burgess, stood with the Tea Party before he bowed to Boehner, and his most recent claim to fame is authoring an amendment to legislation to preserve the production and sale of 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.  I’m sure the electric company and both employees of Light Bulb World are thrilled.
[2] Michael Tortorello, “The Permaculture Movement Grows From the Underground,” The New York Times (July 27, 2011).
By |2017-05-27T18:26:15+00:00August 9th, 2011|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Technium Delititus

One of my favorite columnists, Roger Cohen of The New York Times, recently wrote a rant of lamentations regarding the velocity of change where he questioned if we are really better off with all that has occurred in the last fifty years; in other words, is progress really progress?  He argues,

Before identity theft, when nobody could steal you, before global positioning systems, when we were [often happily] lost, before 24/7 monitoring and alerts by text and email, when there was idleness, before spin doctors, when there was character, before e-readers, when pages turned, we did get by just the same.[1]

Personally, I love my digital conveniences, at least when they work.  However, I must also admit a growing concern I have for, among other things, our capacity for self-sufficiency when batteries fail or networks collapse.  Will we even be able to find our way across town, complete a transaction, or write a real letter in cursive?  Is our new digital economy sustainable on bits and bytes?  Should we be concerned that toddlers’ favorite toys are often an iPhone, or that Google is developing a car that drives itself?[2]  In 1995, techno-futurist Don Tapscott wrote about the dawn of networked intelligence and its impact on a “new world (dis)order”  and settled optimistically on the conclusion that while perils exist, technology  will likely end up “freeing us, stimulating us, and relaxing us” as long as we join the emerging digerati elite.[3]  Fifteen years later, I am willing to endorse his claim of stimulation, but freedom and relaxation are debatable, and the perils may be more insidious than expected.

The perils collectively contribute to a chronic condition I’ll call technium delititis: the slow but certain degradation of our capacity for self-sufficiency and, moreover, our sense of self.   The fundamental question is, as life gets better through advances in technology, are we better at life?  There are (at least) five deleterious effects of technium delititis I have observed in others and myself.  (I do not claim immunity.)

  1. Lack of presence.  The digitally enthralled are seldom mentally where they are physically.  While it’s unfair to call it digital daydreaming when our minds are elsewhere—we may be collaborating via a Google tool on the generation of new alternative fuels—we are nonetheless absent.  Those who are in our midst can count on us for nothing, whether companionship or warning us that our hair is on fire.  This can damage relationships upon which we rely for our own general well being.  Perhaps those of us who are digitally engaged should hang a sign around our neck that reads “Not Here.”
  2. Inability to self-edit.  This problem began with the fax machine.  As the speed of communication increased the requirement for getting our words right the first time decreased.  When it took days to get a letter across the country, we spent much more time with our words and sentences, editing and polishing them to perfection.  Today, we write in incomplete sentences and even incomplete words, and most of us think syntax is a government tax on cigarette and liquor purchases.  The result of speedy transmission is too often lousy communication.
  3. Rising narcissism.  There may be value in social networking, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.  I really don’t care what hundreds of so-called friends had for dinner, or how a store clerk treated them.  Astonishingly, Facebook and Twitter operate on the assumption that we do care, and they are clearly winning the argument given the millions who participate.  The ether in their proposition is narcissism; we are led to believe by those who claim us as friends that such trivial mundane activities are indeed important to others—that we do matter.  Social networks, at least in their current form and use, are (at best) ego-smoothing pacifiers that foster self-delusion.  Worse, they take time away from developing real relationships that have depth and durability.  As sociologist Malcolm Gladwell recently claimed in The New Yorker, “social media are built around weak ties.”  It is unlikely that the next revolution or innovation will claim Twitter as its inspiration, notwithstanding the millions who are addicted to 140-character discourse.
  4. Decline in critical thinking.  Critical thinking begins with research—original research.  Google and Wiki don’t count.  They function as filters and organizers that may exclude better answers to important questions. They are clearly easier to use, but easier is not always better.  If we are going to deal effectively with the problems we face today—and they are enormous—we better get back to real research including the kind of basic research we did in the 1950s and 1960s (before all-things-digital).  Otherwise, we’re just re-stirring the same soup, even though it does arrive on our devices in .8 seconds.
  5. Speed isn’t always good.  We are a society hooked on speed.  We believe that faster is better, and it often is.  But, in many cases, using more time creates higher value.  Thinking a while longer—perhaps even overnight—can be better than clicking send. Taking one’s time allows improvement in quality of thought as well as precious moments for self-editing.  On this point, I reflect on a lesson I learned as a student at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming.  The first lesson in wilderness first aid—when faced with a crisis—is to wait. Obviously, this seems counterintuitive until you learn that decisions made in the first few minutes are the most important ones and, therefore, must be made with careful analysis of all the variables.  This lesson from the wilderness applies to the digital world too.  After all, variables—whether digital, analog, physical, economic, environmental, scientific, political, etc.—are still just variables.  We don’t need to always go as fast as technology allows.

Our first challenge is to at least think about these effects.  Surely, the cavemen who started the first fires and later rolled the first wheels learned quickly about singed beards and the virtue of speed control.  The next challenge is to take control of our gadgets and their usage to assess if a life improved by technology makes us better at living life.  We have daunting challenges ahead of us in America and the world.  We must maintain our capacity for self-sufficiency, self-restraint, and thoughtful deliberation.  We need to keep the effects of technium delititis in-check.

[1] Roger Cohen, “Change or Perish,” The New York Times (October 4, 2010).
[2] See Hilary Stout, “Toddlers’ Favorite Toy: The iPhone,” The New York Times (October 15, 2010); and,  John Markoff,  “Google Cars Drive Themselves in Traffic,” The New York Times (October 9, 2010).
[3] Don Tapscott, The Digital Economy, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995), p. 4, 34.
By |2017-05-27T18:31:50+00:00November 11th, 2010|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

The New Realities Part V: Sovereignty, Anarchy, and Creative Destruction

If you are someone who enjoys chicanery, volatility, and a world without rules, the needle on your happy meter will remain pegged for the foreseeable future.  The world Daniel Suarez creates in his techno-thriller Daemon and its sequel Freedom seems to be more real than fantasy as unexplained flash crashes and debt-induced contagions threaten to destroy our many efforts to construct durable institutions to suppress endemic anarchy in the international system.  Suarez may prove to be as prescient as his predecessor of Americano angst, Tom Clancy.  Alas, anarchy appears to be gaining the upper hand—as Machiavelli’s adherents would argue it always has.  Our stubborn invocation of sovereignty ensures it.  Our rapacious leaders in both D.C. and Wall Street exploit it.  It is simply antithetical for humans to stick much more than a toe into the Rubicon’s waters of civil transformation before withdrawing; there are few Caesars among us.

However, while we wring our hands over the effects of market mayhem and cringe at the timidity of our political leaders who wilt under kliegs supplied by hyper-partisan (so-called) news bureaus, we can also find solace in the uncertainty and upheaval that allows creative destruction to do its thing: to purge the system of bad ideas and incompetent leaders.  Anarchy amps our turpitude but it also makes room for reinvention—for new ideas and leaders to take the stage. Many (relative) innocents will be hurt, but we must embrace this Darwinian moment and adapt our own behaviors and expectations to new realities.  We must avert our eyes from headlines crafted by Chicken Little hacks and dig deeper into human activity.  When we do, we realize that we are one major ah ha! away from an explosion of innovation.  For example, last week’s announcement of the proof-of-concept of synthetically driven cell production means creative destruction is underway.  Next-gen Edison’s remain busy while entitled malcontents who capture headlines hurl stones in Athens’ public square.

Moreover, predictions based on watersheds, contagions, and dominoes are seldom, if ever, realized.  More often, they are used to perpetrate a political slight of hand, like we must fight in Vietnam to stop the contagion of communism; or, if we establish a democracy in Iraq it will produce liberal domino effects throughout the Mid-east.  Or the latest: if Greece goes under the global financial system will collapse.  The reality is that factors that produce effects in one place at a point in time seldom propagate.  Variability of both factors and outcomes is much more probable.  And, we humans have a distinct advantage.  As Matt Ridley points out in The Rational Optimist, humans have mastered the practice of exchange and specialization allowing wealth and intelligence to metastasize across our global civilization.[1]  This means most of us will be okay—as we always have been—notwithstanding enduring the hue, cry, and anger of fear-mongering politicos, displaced non-adapters, and bigoted extremists.

Social order is changing, forced by crises, real or perceived. Sovereignty will become a personal claim, not just a claim of state.  Anarchy will prevail both inter, and intra state.  Eventually, new structures will emerge based on new norms and narratives.  Myths will be written anew.  Collective action based on intelligent exchange and specialization will prevail.  A new ‘normal’ will be revealed.  This dialectic phase will end and a higher truth will emerge, just as it has throughout the history of humankind.

[1] Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Collins, 2010).
By |2017-05-27T18:47:34+00:00May 24th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

The New Realities Part IV: It’s All About the IBCs.

Human progress is marked by the transition from one socio-economic modality to the next, each reflecting man’s principal means of satisfaction.  Historians and anthropologists call them ‘ages.’  The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Agrarian Age, Industrial Age, Technology Age and most recently the so-called Information Age.  Over the last century or so, during the industrial, technology, and information ages, science and engineering dominated allowing massive industrialization and gains in productivity and wealth.  During this period epistemological activity was marked by the scientification of everything.  Wealth defined success.  The framework of the prevalent modality during any given ‘age’ is manifested in all aspects of human interaction.  For example, to wage a credible argument and earn the respect of peers in the academic world since the early twentieth century, one had to be able to identify independent and dependent variables and replicate results, ceteris paribus.  This gave rise to a number of new ‘sciences’ including political science, economics, and sociology, which have worn their scientific wardrobe with neither consistent appeal nor comfortable fit.

Today, we are realizing the limits of our science-centric modality, especially as we attempt to navigate our way through current crises.  It appears economists have had it mostly wrong most of the time.  Political scientists and sociologists are having equal difficulty explaining observed phenomena.  The result is that Ideas, Beliefs, and Convictions – the IBCs – are on the rise as a locus of analysis.  Not since the period of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when we moved away from the mystical to the rational, has the swing of the pendulum toward empiricism been arrested. This shift back toward IBCs signals a subtle but critical transition in our socio-economic modality from the information age to the cognetic[1] age.  What and how are being replaced by why as the central question.[2]  Scientific method is being rebalanced with a reconsideration of the arts, philosophy, religion, and history as we attempt to make critical decisions – hopefully in time to save our fragile social order.

As we have both benefited from and endured the scientification of everything, the time has come to rebalance our analytics with an equal or greater consideration of why things are the way they are, not just what and how we do what we do.  In my doctoral research, I study why presidents do what they do in foreign policy.  I search for the threads of influence and thought that result in decisions that affect millions of lives.  In the process, I build cognetic profiles that include the intellectual capital and cognitive disposition of presidents drawn from an historical examination of their education, experiences, socializations, and indoctrinations.  What I have found is not earth shattering, but is also nearly universally ignored by scholars in this period of scientific preference.  The principal driver in presidential decision-making is not empirical data, logic, or even politics; it is the intellectual capital and cognitive disposition that form a president’s cognetic functionalities.  ‘Facts’ only become so by permission—granted by IBCs.  Asking why allows us to both explain and predict decisions.  It gives us a sense of meaning that empirical data never does, which produces a more coherent model to understand and explain our world.

Shifting our search to why—toward a cognetic age where IBCs matter again—will also impact how we measure success.  Wealth, or net worth, may be replaced by net well being as we shift our preferences toward things that have meaning, not just utility. This has profound implications for how we live our lives and form relationships toward people and their organizations.  If you have a company focused on what and/or how, you better start thinking about why.  If you counsel people about their investments, well being may be a more appropriate framework for quarterly reviews than net worth.  If you are charged with the task of defeating terrorism, IBCs may be much more important than economic aid or nation building, and much more effective than frisking grandma at the airport.  If you are a teacher, make sure your students also search for meaning while they are identifying, articulating, and calculating the whats and hows.  And, if you are President Obama, you had better stick to your why—“Hope & Change”—even in the face of sophomoric ridicule and partisan intransigence.  That’s why you were elected.

IBCs matter, perhaps more now than they have in many decades, and may just unlock some powerful solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges.

[1] Cognetic is used here as simply meaning ‘thought into motion’ or the operationalization of IBCs where IBCs are as meaningful, if not more, than empirical/scientific data.  It is borrowed from the definition provided by Lt. Colonel Bruce K. Johnson, USAF, on “Dawn of the Cognetic Age: Fighting Ideological War by Putting Thought into Motion with Impact” accessed at http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj07/win07/johnson.html. Johnson serves as Air Force Reserve chief of strategic communication plans at the Pentagon.
[2] Marketing consultant Simon Sinek explains the connection between why and inspired leadership – and its importance over what and how at www.startwithwhy.com. You can also see his TED presentation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA.
By |2017-05-25T21:12:37+00:00May 9th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

The New Realities Part III: Ultrapreneurism

My father’s generation created wealth through their corporate citizenship; join one and remain there for many years while vesting in a retirement plan and/or buying large cap stocks and holding on to them for just as many years.  This was a very viable path to economic security.  In 1979, upon graduation from college, I took a step in that direction by joining the marketing department of Pacific Northwest Bell, an AT&T regional operating company.  But, to the unspoken vexation of my father, I left seven months later to strike out on my own in the media business.  At my father’s memorial service in 1995, one of his friends who eulogized him said that my father never really understood what I did, but acknowledged that I seemed to like it so “so be it.”  I was then thirty-eight years old and within two years would be retired (financially self-sustaining) myself.  I had become what was known as an entrepreneur, creating wealth outside of, and often in spite of, the corporate world.

As social economist George Gilder celebrated entrepreneurs in The Spirit of Enterprise (the bible of Reagan-era entrepreneurs), he described them as those who “know that genius is sweat and toil and sacrifice and that natural resources gain value only by the ingenuity and labor of man.” He argued entrepreneurs “create the wealth over which the politicians posture and struggle … they sustain the world.”[1] Gilder’s is an over-romanticized celebration, but he aptly captured the spirit and sentiments of my generation of wealth builders.  But we too are fast becoming obsolete, replaced by ultrapreneurs who are even less systemically connected and are quickly adapting to new market conditions marked by interdependence, complexity, and volatility; and who are producing new inverted strategies of wealth creation.

It is worth understanding the conditions that give rise to this new breed I call ultrapreneurs.  Globalism has many effects, driven principally by the liberalism of trade and geometric acceleration of enabling technologies.  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb successfully argues in The Black Swan the world today is best described as a “recursive environment” where an “increasing number of feedback loops … cause … snowballs and arbitrary and unpredictable planet-wide winner-take-all effects.”[2]  As complexity compounds, the improbable occurs with greater frequency, which brings to question a number of things, especially investment strategies.  In effect, the curve of distribution—the bell curve—flattens causing calculations of risk/reward to consider that the probability of outlier events (high positive and high negative returns) to be relatively more likely than they have been in the past.[3]  And, if complexity accelerates even faster—without contemporaneous codification of rules and consequences—the curve could become inverted.  Translation: playing within a standard deviation of the mean is no longer justified based on an assessment of relative risk and reward.  Add to this the emerging reality that systemic market risk increases in a complex financial system that has yet to develop command and control mechanisms, and that now also includes systemic fraud risk, the question becomes not whether one should be in or out of the market, but how one operates away from the market.  Furthermore, those who continue to chant the mantra of the long run are fools (or they simply don’t know how to interpret the short run).  In a complex interdependent market staring at either the mean or the horizon actually exposes one to more, not less, risk.  The better perspective is to view the landscape from a reasonable altitude, looking down, as events unfold, not out at the horizon.

There are a number of people who argue that the end is near—that social collapse is eminent (even secularists).[4]  However, I would argue that Gregg Easterbrook is closer to the mark in Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed. Easterbrook claims that “job instability, economic insecurity, a sense of turmoil, the unfocused fear that even when things seem good a hammer is about to fall … are part of a larger trend, and no rising tide will wash them away.”  But he also points out that globalization has positive aspects: “ease of communication, more freedom of speech, markets closely attuned to consumer demand, [and] rising education levels in the developing world.”[5]  Adapting to this world requires a high degree of intellectual flexibility—an embrace of ideological agnosticism that produces a transcendent state of mind allowing creative reinvention.  This is the mental mindset of the ultrapreneur.  He or she is the ultimate free agent who has the same work ethic as an entrepreneur, but who remains as disconnected as possible from systemic risk and who prefers anonymity to fame.  They are hyper-independent, stealth, and highly adaptive.  They do not recognize traditional boundaries or conventions and find leverage in intelligence, not natural resources—and never debt.  They prefer networks to formal enterprise and may even operate through multiple identities.  They are a product of the natural evolution of social order in a complex interdependent world.  Ultrapreneurs will be the winners in an increasingly risk-laden world.

[1] George Gilder, The Spirit of Enterprise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 18-19.
[2] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), xxii.
[3] Hedge funds are the early interpreters of this strategy.  What killed many hedge funds was not investment strategy, it was leverage.
[4] See Joseph Tainter’s 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies, or Niall Ferguson’s more recent “Complexity and Collapse” in the March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs.
[5] Gregg Easterbrook, Sonic Boom; Globalization at Mach Speed (New York: Random House, 2009), xii-xiii.
By |2017-05-25T21:31:07+00:00May 4th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

The New Realities Part II: Referential Power

While mega-trends are producing hyper-freedom (see New Realties Part 1), the nature of power—how it is acquired and deployed—is changing as well.  Traditionally, power has been viewed as exclusively coercive—primarily through negative induction—to serve what the Athenian leader Pericles called “the most fundamental of human motivations: ambition, fear, and self-interest.”  Metrics of demographics, geography, and natural resources dominated.  As Thucydides observed during the Peloponnesian Wars, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[1]  Hard power dominated in a world considered zero-sum, where every winner was matched with a loser.  In the latter twentieth century, Harvard’s Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power that includes both positive and negative influence by non-matériel means in a plus-sum (win/win) interdependent world.  Today, the world is changing further still, moving toward new processes that recognize the disaggregation and diffusion of power in a global, as opposed to state-centric, framework.  At the center of this phenomenon are the relative decline of U.S. power and the rise of free agency that enables a third form of power: referential power.

The decline of U.S. power, even if only in a relative sense among other state powers, causes much debate and consternation. After the Soviet Union collapsed the U.S. stood as a unipolar power, unrivaled in hard and soft power.  Following 9/11, U.S. foreign policy entered a period of hubristic overreach that caused a self-inflicted degradation of power.  For many, even suggesting decline is profoundly unpatriotic and inherently foolish.[2]  If we are smart, however, it should not matter.  It is a waste of words and worry.  The paradox of power is that both too little and too much prove to be undesirable.  As foreign policy scholar Michael Mandelbaum recently illustrated, the “power problem” is similar to what economists call the “resource curse,” which occurs in countries that dominate a particular resource, like oil.  They invariably, as do countries with too much power (like the U.S.), adopt policies that weaken the state by over-reliance on the resource, or pernicious use of their power.[3] But again, this should not matter if we recognize our errors and master the concept of referential power.

So what is referential power? As an admittedly exaggerated illustration, consider what it would be like if all NFL football players immediately became unrestricted free agents and were allowed to form new teams without the influence or control of the NFL, team owners, or the players union. Alliances and teams would be formed around particular interests and capabilities without the constraints imposed by the deposed oligarchy.  Disaggregated and diffused ‘power’ in this sense would be recognized, accumulated, and realigned through negotiation by each player based on how they complemented each other’s skills and capacities—to win the next Super Bowl.  Power in this sense becomes referential, granted by and between participants who rely on one another’s skills and capacities to realize the highest and best application of their own.

In a much more gradual and constrained fashion, referential power is being deployed in the global system today, negotiated by both state and non-state actors around specific objectives that may be targeted at security, economics, or other social aims.  Actors are perfecting the art of coopetition, of competing to cooperate. China competes very effectively with the International Monetary Fund to cooperate with African political and business leaders on many industrial development projects.  According to Howard W. French of The Atlantic they do so without the heavy-handedness of the U.S. such that they are perceived as “our friends” throughout Africa.[4] As the metrics shift from demographics, geography, and natural resources towards intelligence-based metrics, so does the nature of power.  If the U.S. is to continue to enjoy a differential power advantage over the long term, our leaders must recognize this changing power paradigm. And, this model of networked, referential power can also be applied locally; you are your own free agent.

On the local level, following the mantra of think globally, act objectively, one must reconsider how to align with resources and authority to accomplish cherished goals.  Identifying like-minded people (through relational networks) and forming a special-purpose, objective-specific network that defines the objective, designs the solution, and drives implementation is the basis of transcendent objectivism; ad-hoc, organically formed alliances where power is granted referentially and resources and authority follow the solution to its realization.  Attraction, not coercion.  Government in this process is not a headliner.  It plays a supportive role.  Transcendent objectivism is a design that is scalable, up or down, locally or globally, among individuals or states.  At its core is referential power.

[1] John Baylis, and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics (3rd ed.), (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 50, 167.
[2] For a recent argument against ‘the declinists,’ who question the enduring primacy of American power, see Josef Joffe, “The Default Power: The False Prophecy of America’s Decline.” Foreign Affairs, (September/October, 2009): 21-35.  See also, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987); and Jeremy Black, Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony (London: Routledge, 2008).
[3] Michael Mandelbaum, “Overpowered: Questioning the Wisdom of American Restraint.” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010): 114-119.
[4] Howard W, French, “The Next Empire.” The Atlantic (May 2010): 59-69.
By |2017-05-25T21:25:11+00:00April 25th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

The New Realities Part I: Hyper-freedom

The collision of two mega-trends is creating a new level of freedom unprecedented in history. The decline of state-centric social order—particularly in the global West—and the exponential proliferation of digital technologies means that boundaries and limits are rapidly disappearing. This has extraordinary implications for all of us, but most of all for those engaged in activism and/or entrepreneurship.

Our state-centric, government-based form of social order—of collective action—is facing imminent decline. While new, networked forms of collective action will replace governments and their bureaucracies—avoiding social collapse—there will be periods of extreme discomfort marked by social upheaval and occasional (and hopefully isolated) violence. The rise of Tea Party anger on the one hand, and emerging social networks like Facebook on the other, are harbingers of this transformation. The proliferation of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is another. This is not an ideological-driven transformation, although battle lines will be conjured along ideological lines by political aspirants; it is the result of an overburdened and dysfunctional system; an induced failure. Government simply cannot and will not be able to continue to perform all the duties it has accepted via constitution and assumption.

In the United States, government’s structure, processes, and institutionalized corruption are rendering it obsolete. It won’t go away completely by any means, but the scope of its duties will narrow, and functionally it will offer little more than resources and authority. It can play a valuable, albeit limited, role. In the future it will rarely design or implement policy. It has lost those capacities. It will more closely resemble what the Founding Fathers intended. The most important thing for each of us is to be on the right side of the transformation. Those who scream at government, stoke hatred, or choose violence will lose. Those who embrace government’s new limited and redefined role—who view it as a precursor to hyper-freedom—will prevail. Freedom always has. Freedom always will.

Meanwhile, the promises of digital technologies are just beginning to be realized. The principal benefit: cheap and reliable connectivity that enables the communication of ideas from ‘alternate spaces,’ will produce previously unimagined alliances and solutions, operating at the margins of traditional or conventional institutions. In short, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The world that columnist Thomas Friedman calls (simplistically) “flat” is in reality a complex of layered and vertically integrated networks; neither hierarchical nor unordered. Advances in new forms of energy are just one area where hyper-freedom will be expressed. The advancement of economies, security, healthcare, and education in developing countries is another likely category. Intelligence-based security systems are a third. The dominant ‘natural’ resource in all of this is intelligence, created out of a velocity of idea convergence that will create metrics of productivity one can only dream about today.

The decline of government and the rise of technology do not change the nature of our issues or objectives, it simply allows us greater freedom through which to design and execute solutions. At the door of this new reality of hyper-freedom lay two fundamental commitments. We must first realize it is an opportunity, not a threat. Then, we must take the leap of faith and put ourselves out there in this new connected world and share our ideas, resources, and talents. We don’t have to become digitized technocrats, but we must commit ourselves to new avenues of work. Social activism and commercial opportunities must be pursued through professionally managed objective-specific networks, open to any worthy participant regardless of archaic qualifiers. Those who feel threatened will most likely characterize this as socialism—many already have. They will advocate policies of isolation. But this is not socialism; it is transcendent. It is a higher form of democracy, which echoes Abraham Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Those who see it as an opportunity—as hyper-freedom—will achieve great things for themselves and for society. They will be the new stewards of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Which side will you choose?

 

By |2017-05-25T21:29:12+00:00April 19th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

The Next Neo: Neo-fascism

Fascism is characterized by three core elements: concentration of power, hyper-nationalism, and right-wing conservative political and social views.  Fascists consider every domain of social order – security, economics, education, religion, and politics—as malleable in whichever direction supports the imposition of their will.  Coercion is the lifeblood of fascism. Whether accomplished through overt violence or oppression of any modality, individualism—human and civil rights—are its enemy.  Identity is imposed, as a reflection of the values of elite ideologues who seek power in what they view as perilous times, when social and political trends are threatening their nationalistic disposition.  Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were perhaps the world’s most famous fascists, but a few radical American neo-conservatives appear to be leaning toward the fascist model more and more everyday, led by Dick and daughter Liz Cheney, John Yoo, and William Kristol.

This new small group of emerging neo-fascists, might be easily dismissed as a sideshow that should be considered as little more than fodder for the entertaining rants of late night, quasi-news programs like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show except for the fact they are intelligent and highly connected to the existing political apparatus of this country with plenty of sympathetic followers in the media.  In addition, they have the support of Christian nationalists (aka the Religious Right), akin to Mussolini’s relationship with the Vatican in the run-up to World War II.  In short, they have a huge head start over what Hitler and Mussolini had, and like these ideological predecessors, they are rising at a time of political, social, and economic instability. We ignore or dismiss them at our peril.  And, as they incite fear at every opportunity, they will no doubt gain support from the disaffected and dispossessed whose numbers are increasing at an increasing rate, and whose principal interest is to recapture their position in an ever-organic social order that appears to be selecting against them.

While the content of Dick Cheney’s legacy is being revealed slowly, concealed by a steady invocation of national security, the nature of his legacy has been cast.  His incessant summons of fear, support of executive power, affinity for war, and disregard for legal rights and the rule of law are his corner posts.  Recently, his daughter Liz, joined by William Kristol, in  (Dick) Cheney-esque style, called for the identification of those attorneys in the Department of Justice who previously had represented Guantanamo detainees.  Labeled the “al-Qaeda Seven” by Liz Cheney, she characterized them as Osama bin Laden sympathizers in an attempt to expose them reminiscent of McCarthyism in the 1950s.  John Yoo is the inscrutable legal counsel who penned the rationale that twists the Constitution in favor of a unitary executive by employing abstractions of narrowly selected founding history to offer absolution to his neo-fascist brethren.  As Mickey Edwards at The Atlantic characterized them, “they are statists, pure and simple, dismissive of law, dismissive of the Constitution, dismissive of freedoms. They love power, not freedom.”

 

By |2017-05-25T22:15:22+00:00March 12th, 2010|General, The New Realities|0 Comments