Democracy, Corrupted

Several years ago I read a great book called Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. Wrote a blog about it back when Occupy Wall Street was a thing. Lessig has since ran for President and subsequently dropped out of this year’s race, but I think the points in his book are a salient now as ever. His platform was to eliminate corruption government by changing campaign finance laws. Of the remaining candidates, I believe Bernie is the only one that has portion’s of Lessig’s platform in his. As I mentioned in my blog a few days ago, money influences people even when they don’t believe that it does. In fact, simply having a conversations with someone can either normalize or prime a certain behavior. For example, a lobbyist may call from the cable industry to discuss some topic that’s going to be up for vote in some time, they also mention donating to the next election cycle. That same day an unrelated bill may be up for vote that tangentially impacts the cable industry, because of this priming the politician will be more sympathetic to the cable industry than they may have been otherwise. In some cases this type of priming or normalization can result in some pretty disastrous policies for the American people.

This is a horrible problem caused by us vs. them mentality of current politics. It’s also caused by the need to raise money. The ability to disenfranchise voters is powerful, because it robs them of their voice and replaces their voice with a special interest voice. These voters aren’t being disenfranchised for no reason. This is a systematic effort to eliminate the influence of a group of minorities that would push for dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. This impacts a large number of groups, private prison companies, law enforcement, lawyers, etc. As the Pennsylvania Republican points out at the end of the segment, this voice has serious impact on the direction a state can go in a general election thus impacting policy.

All of the other things I write about are the result of policy, which fundamentally comes from who is in office. When elected officials abuse their position to prevent other people, who I might not agree with, from voting our Democracy is corrupt. It is important to note that the actions described in the video above, while likely coordinated by the RNC, happens at the state and city levels. These are areas that people, myself included, largely ignore when thinking of voting. With so much focus on the national elections, these smaller roles largely don’t seem to matter to voters. These policies impact us as much, or in some cases more, than national polices. These are the policies that prevent cities from deploying their own broadband or the lead to the militarization of police departments in cities like Ferguson.

Lessig started a group called Mayday.us which highlights candidates, mostly at the national level, that are working for eliminating corruption in government. I supported them last year and plan to do so again this year. I also believe it is time for me to get more actively involved in this and other movements to address the fundamental corruption issues in government. This is truly the only way to level the playing field so that the best ideas win out rather than the biggest budget.

Restrictions Can Drive Innovation

As a Lean process improvement guy as well as someone that really loves reading about innovation I’ve always taught my students that regulations, limitations, and restrictions on processes, equipment, and activities offer us an opportunity to innovate around those rules. The way that I describe it is that rules place you in a box, but within that box you can move up and down and diagonal and develop some really interesting ideas because of what you can’t do. However, you don’t focus on what you can’t do as much as focusing on how you can avoid that and what you CAN do.

I saw a picture to a great discussion about how gluten free diets are forcing, at least one chef, to be more innovative in their cooking. I’d post it, but the image is so large it’d take up the entire post, so I linked it above. Essentially the chef had a dish with polenta on it and a base that was all glutenous flour, but he figured out a way to make it all polenta, which actually created a unique dining experience that he felt offered a superior taste.

Another area where regulation has been the root of many innovation is the financial sector. They complain the most about regulations because it’s “bad for the economy” or something like that. However, CDO’s and everything that caused the last collapse was in response TO regulations. They figured out how to work around the regulations and make even more money than before. In fact, many banks started to follow suit because they weren’t able to post as high of profits and were getting hit by Wall Street for under performing comparatively.

This is one of the reasons why I personally don’t see value in fighting regulation other than to shape it in one direction or the other. The companies that are able to exploit the regulation the best are going to end up being first to market or extremely fast followers. Meaning they will make a great deal of money and likely dominate the market. If you look at regulation as a “disruptor” and an opportunity to disrupt the regulation, you’re going to do really well as a business.

Companies forget that they pay wages; don’t understand complexity of economy

Apparently 68 out of the top 100 retailers are concerned about flat or falling wages. Huffington Post did some poking around their 10-K forms and aggregated the top risks for the top 100 retailers. Huffpo found that low spending, unemployment, and falling or flat wages were the top 3 items. To me this is really interesting. Apple was recently identified as part of a wage fixing scheme that looks like it could have cost employees something on the order of $3.2 Billion, Wal-Mart has cut hours of their employees as to prevent themselves from paying for ObamaCare for those employees, which means that those employees have to pay for their insurance out of pocket, as they have to insurance now.

All of these things together impact the web of our economy. What we’re seeing is local optimization which leads to sub-optimization of the entire system. Companies that are cutting wages or benefits to maximize their profits are likely taking a cut out of their own revenue stream. It’s likely that many Wal-Mart employees shop there because it’s the lowest priced place in most areas for most goods. The fact that WinCo is Wal-Mart’s largest threat now, is pretty indicative that wages are falling.

When Henry Ford raised the wages of his employees to a real living wage, it wasn’t out of kindness or some perceived social good. It was so that his employees could buy his car. If a large mass of people are unable to buy a good you produce because of your own wage policies you’re creating a problem for yourself. Furthermore, economies are networks, they interact with each other. Each and everyone of those employees would then become representatives for the Ford brand and be able to show off the good they were manufacturing. With every new employee hired, Ford knew that there would eventually be one more sale.

Companies today have clearly forgotten this. Retail is one of the largest segment of our economy, with a huge number of employees. If this entire swath of our population cannot afford to buy consumer goods, then it’s likely that we’re going to be continually be at risk for another recession. People buying stuff is what keeps our economy going. If the companies that staff the most people do not pay them well enough to keep buying stuff beyond food, then we’re at a great risk.

Wages are a very difficult thing. There’s a Socialist party in Seattle that’s trying to get minimum wage up to $15, but offered a job starting at $13/hour. Employees have gone on strike to get higher wages. I’ve written about it several times, however, whenever companies are indicating that low wages are a risk to their business, it’s time for them to start looking in the mirror. There are large retail industry groups, these groups should start to investigate the root cause of these risks and propose recommendations to address these concerns.

Should the Fed look to take action to protect the companies from themselves in order to protect the economy? Should the minimum wage be increased to address the problem? Should the government take action at all, it’s the businesses fault if they fail because they didn’t pay their employees enough. What do you think?

Driverless cars aren’t without ethical quandaries

While driving home the other day I was thinking about the new Google Driverless car stuff that I’ve seen. It’s an interesting looking vehicle, see it below. Apparently, one of the reasons why Google went fully autonomous was that people would be first hyper vigilant, then so lazy that they completely trusted the car in any and every situation.

Google’s fully automated driverless car

I believe it’s likely that the first round of driverless cars won’t be fully automated. Data will eventually show that the fully automated cars are perfectly safe, but we’re a paranoid lot when it comes to new technology. I also think that there are definitely risks with a fully autonomous car in regard to hacking and spoofing the system. I have a feeling that will become a game with hackers to try to trick the car into thinking that a direction is safe when it is actually not. To continually combat these risks Google will have to make it very easy to update the software, possibly while driving, as well as the hardware. I believe this is one of the many reasons why Google just announced their 180 internet satellites that they will be launching soon.

However, I think that the best of intentions will likely lead to some serious issues for Google and law makers in the next few years. For some of them an author at the Guardian wrote a few of them. That being said, I think that the first cars will not be fully automatic until enough data comes into show they are safe going highway speeds consistently. I think that this will lead to issues for Google.

One of the things that is missed in the Guardian article above is that if you’re an Android user, those very things could happen already. Your phone already tracks not just GPS but also nearby cell towers, so you could very easily subpoena either Google or your cell provider for records of your whereabouts. However, the interesting thing that Google talks about in regard to safety, is that drunk driving will be a think of the past.

As I mentioned before I think that there will be a manual mode and I think there will have to be one for a while because of definite hacker threats. You’d need to override. I also think that this would require a mechanical switch that literally overrides the system. The system would still run, but would not be able to override the human driver. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I don’t think that anyone can create a truly secure vehicle like this and if one is compromised then all of them would be under the exact same risk.

Now, let’s say a guy goes out drinking. Google knows where he is. Google knows that he took pictures of his shots Instagraming “#drinktilyoublackout!”. Google also knows that he texted a few friends through Hangouts fully integrated texting capability. Furthermore, he tweets to @Google “Getting Black out drunk no #DD #DriverlessFTW”. This guy then gets into the car, switches it to manual override for whatever reason gets in an accident, who is at fault here? Clearly the guy that’s driving right? Well, if he had a fully automated car with no other option he’d not hurt anyone. Google knows everything he’s doing. Google knows everywhere you go already because of how their devices work. The difference is now that they can control where you’re going and how you get there.

Is Google responsible for building a car with a manual override that could save people’s lives in other instances? Is the State responsible for mandating that Google put in that switch? Should Google have built in safety measures that make the user go through a series of actions or prove the driver is capable of overriding the car?

I think that we need to hash out all of these before these cars are allowed on the road. I also think it’s going to be vitally important that we understand what happens with that data from all our cars, who can access it, and if we really have any privacy in a fully automated car like that. Simply by participating in our culture with a cell phone we’ve already eroded our privacy a great deal in both the public and private realm. Driverless cars will further impact that and will likely end up being a highly political issue over the next several years. Taxis, Lyft, and Uber will be out of business – the Car2Go model will beat them out any day of the week if the cars are autonomous. Direct to customers, like Tesla is pretty obvious. Lots of changes are going to happen through these cars.

We can’t just let this happen to us, we need to make decisions about how we want to include driverless cars in our lives. They aren’t inevitable and definitely not in their current incarnation.

Kickstarter to end Government Corruption

In my blog yesterday I talked about the value of culture, we know that it intrinsically has value because all participate in it – we just don’t want to pay for that culture. Serious problems. One of the biggest conflicts we have right now is within the internet users relates to content and other cultural icons. A lot of people want it to be easily accessible and other people want it tightly controlled. This of course has been playing out in our courts over the past decade or so.

One of the first people that’s influenced me in regard to culture and sharing and so on, has been Lawrence Lessig. He’s written a few really accessible books about copy right. However, he’s since moved on from fighting copyright extremism to fighting corruption in the US government. I wrote a review about his first book in this arena, he’s written two other since. He’s a big fan of how the internet works and truly believes in platforms like kickstarter (Which could help address some of my concerns from yesterday over keeping a vibrant market place of cultures).

To this end, he’s decided to create a super pac in the spirit of a Kickstarter campaign. He’s calling it MayOne in honor of “May Day” admitting that he’s using it as a call for help. A call to help fix the US government.

I think that this platform offers an interesting opportunity for all of those folks out there that hate our current political system. The initial campaign is to influence 5 congressional seats as well as push for 5 specific acts that will create real reform. Here’s a link to the reform bills they’d want to push form.

I’ve pledged money for this. Why? Because I think that we need to create change in the US government and I believe that Lessig’s plan has the best chance to work. He’s taking the long view and has a real plan for driving change. It’s not going to be an immediate fix it’s going to take several years for real change to happen. This is also a way to influence change with only a few dollars. The goal is to raise $1 million and Lessig will match that million. Their next goal is 5 million, which he will then also match setting up the war chest for 2016. His goal is to help get multiple reform candidates elected to effect change.

I think that this is a way forward and that most of the candidates that MayOne will support will also support things like Net Neutrality, Copyright reform, and similar topics that most of my readers are concerned with.

Lack of Net Neutrality will be a competitive liability in the future for the US

Net Neutrality could be dead in the US and I think that this creates problems for companies that do business in other parts of the world. Or rather, it creates incentives for companies based in the US to focus on non-US markets for conducting business. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take this from a Netflix perspective, assuming they were able to get the same catalog they currently have in the US and took it into Europe (this has been difficult for US companies while it’s been easier for EU companies to come into the US – see Pandora and Spotify as references). Let’s assume that can happen and they have they opportunity to continue to work in one region or the other.

The EU has recently enacted end-to-end Net Neutrality as the law of the land. So, Netflix traffic cannot be slowed down because of the volume. It cannot be slowed down because it is Netflix traffic, all traffic if it needs to be groomed happens at the same time (likely random or everything gets slowed down). Netflix cannot be charged by the ISP to ensure specific speed to guarantee quality of product, if Netflix wants to control this, it’s up to them (they could manage this through increased buffering before the video starts, for example). The average internet speed is significantly higher than in the US, so the quality will be higher and the need for buffering lower, because the speed can account for dropped packets much more effectively. This means if they charge 8 Euros a month, they are able to keep more of that.These conditions would also apply in Argentina.

In the US, Netflix traffic is now subject to the whims of the ISP. the ISP can slow down traffic based on the time of the day, based on the source of the traffic (using deep packet inspection). They can and have charged Netflix for equal access as, for example, Comcast Xfinity’s streaming service. The US has some of the lowest average internet speeds in the industrialized world. Netflix charges $8/month they have to pay Comcast to ensure that their service meets their end users requirements.

As a company that makes money based on the fact that they are able to deliver high quality content (where the price of said content is continually rising), I would prefer to operate in the EU rather than the US. I will have significantly less issues with the ISPs because they can’t discriminate my traffic and I won’t have to pay to make sure that they do not discriminate my traffic. This means that my quality will increase and my cost per user will not increase as it will in the US. I would begin focusing on providing local language content as well as the best content I can provide from the highest quality sources in the world.

As we start moving towards higher speed requirements in our applications, this will become a larger problem. I know of people online that have issue streaming up to Twitch and Mixify as well as streaming the content to their computer. This is a problem now. We will be moving into significantly higher quality video and games (PS4 streaming a game to your console, that will require a lot of bandwidth and low latency $$$$$). Furthermore, if we start having more tele-medicine we’ll need higher quality video feeds to ensure best results.

These are all examples of applications we know of that will suffer from a lack of net neutrality. As we get people that develop applications for gigabit connections, we’ll start to see net neutrality as paramount. These companies will not be able to afford the required costs for the internet speeds required for effective applications.

This means that the EU and other net neutral countries may become the source of innovation for these applications or companies that create them in the US will need to move to markets like the EU for a user base that can fully exploit their application.

We’ll effectively be playing on an Xbox 360, when high quality PCs are out there. We’ll be at a serious disadvantage.

Economics is failing

Yes, that’s right, traditional economics is failing, but then we knew that. We hear talk that we’re out of the recession, but for a lot of people that doesn’t seem to be true. Many businesses are out of the recession and the “market” seems to think we’re out of the recession. However, what does it mean when the market is out of the recession? A lot of the market runs on high frequency trading, so the market can make money without a lot of people participating. Based on traditional economics theory, these markets should behave in a specific manner and they aren’t.

Slate calls this the difference between salt water and freshwater economics. Where the freshwater economics is based upon a lot of the traditional neoclassical theories, while the salt water economics is what the market traders are using. They’re using physics or other sort of network models that aren’t included in traditional economics theories.

Many of them have begun to use various forms of evolutionary economics, because it works. However, there’s a disconnect between the market and many of the leading theorists in Academia. Why? because those economists have made a career out of developing these theories. I believe that economics is at the beginning of a paradigm shift and it’s going to be painful. A lot of things are going to be changing because of this paradigm shift.

We’re staring at the end of jobs within the next 40 years, not all jobs, but a huge amount of the works force is going to be automated. Google’s working on industrial robotics with Foxconn, multiple companies are working on driverless cars, a few companies have developed drag and drop software so you don’t need to know how to code to develop software which will automate work because you build in your process rather than building your process around the system. This is radically going to change work. In the Race Against the Machine book it’s clear we’re going to be seeing changes in how our society works.

We’re going to be entering a time period where traditional economics doesn’t work and neither does capitalism. A blog post I read the other day has an interesting discussion of how we can move beyond capitalism (based on Star Trek). By the way, when I’m saying capitalism isn’t working, what I mean is that it’s not going to work to fundamentally keep the majority of the people working or provide any realistic relief to non-working people. It will be working quite well for a subset of the population that figure out how to survive or thrive in that economy. The question at that point becomes not what we think our economy is or should be, but what we value as a society.

I’ve talked about this in other posts in the past, however, I think that when we are looking at the “market place of applicable ideas” and we see that the people that should be influenced the most by economic theory AREN’T using it, but our government is, we have a serious problem. People at banks making huge sums of money on trading should be influenced by economic theory because they deal with vast sums of money and are actively driving a huge portion of our economic activity (valuable or not is another question). If they don’t see value in using those theories, then our leaders that are still applying them need to seriously rethink what theories they are applying to “manage” our economy.

When the prevailing theory in a discipline is failing, for the discipline to survive it must move beyond it. Typically the new theories that save it come from outsiders and indeed in economics it has – from two sources, Biology and Physics. Hopefully our leaders and teachers can see it before our current economic theories destroy us all.