Friday, January 23, 2009

A New Kind of Economy-- Revised

"When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money."--Dmitry Orlov as reported by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker January 26, 2009.

I will not provide a conventional economic analysis here for two reasons. The first being that I am not really qualified to do so, and there are plenty of economists talking around if not directly about the implications of Orlov's statement above. The second reason is much more simple, we know what capitalism is, its benefits and detriments, at least to some degree.

What Dmitry Orlov points to for me is a much broader statement about wealth that exists far beyond the parameters set forth by our economy. The fall of the consumption- based economy creates the space for a re-evaluation of other less easily measurable commodities. Re-evaluation and not evaluation because "to evaluate" is too passive a description of what now seems possible. When money is not so available as it has been for the last decade or more, a population who, within a spectrum, in some fundamental way, relied upon currency-backed (or consumption power) self-valuation, is forced to find a new way to measure their worth.

So where to? Social entrepreneurship is on the rise, our political system glimmers with possibility of a better day for more people-- and yet we know that day is many difficult days away. What cynics call an impossible utopia, one defined by mutual human interest, a respect for the humanity of the other which undeniably binds us together, where we recognize the responsibility of the individual to carry the community of all, the other, the neighbor, the stranger, in her heart. As our brilliant President Barack Obama said just a few days ago, "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." I would amend Obama's statement by staying that the paradigm shift will reach and must reach ALL sectors, not only the political.

All cannot know immense currency-backed wealth-- for if it were-- currency would be forever relegated to worthlessness, a simple law of supply and demand. But love, this is an unlimited resource, one that can make even the most despondent full of worth, of wealth, of hope, of possibility.

The above quote was excerpted from a wholly fascinating article entitled The Dystopians.

Dystopia: An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression or terror.
Dystopian: Of relating to a dystopia; dire, grim.
Utopia: An ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political and moral aspects.
Utopian: Of relating to a utopia; excellent or ideal but impracticable; visionary.

Dystopian and Utopian are inextricably related world views, one with an overly optimistic formulation and the other formed by sheer pessimism with regards to systems in their current state. But both are acknowledgments of broken systems that cannot be simply gorilla-glued back together; systems that are forever shattered and must be recomposed by a complete reconstitution of values. Competition, limited commodities, these require humans to fundamentally respond in kind with self-interest; it is the fight or flight mechanism, hard-wired for survival. The primacy of currency-backed economics means that while some are fighting for their stock portfolios, the rest are fighting for their lives.

Ben McGrath references three men each of whom are living a different take on a dystopian perspective. The first as mentioned above is Dmitry Orlov, who gave up his house and is living on a sailboat, a vessel he describes as his “survival capsule.” The second subject of the article is James Howard Kunstler, who in his weekly blog, “Clusterfuck Nation” most recently described the American public as “a public so demoralized by their own bad choices that the USA scene has devolved to a non-stop Special Olympics of everyday life, where absolutely everybody is debilitated, deluded, challenged, or needs a leg up, or an extra buck, or a pallet on the floor, or a gastric bypass, or a week in detox, or a head-start, or a fourth strike, or a $150-billion bailout.” And the struggles out in front of us as a quandary: “how do you re-shape [the American people] into a population guided by a sense of earnest purpose, with reality-based expectations, with habits of delayed gratification and impulse control, and a sense of their own history?” Good question.

The third man profiled in this article is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Within The Dystopians, Taleb references a solution, or the inevitable paradigm shift as a reversion to “antiquity, a new classical era.” The problem with a sense that this shift is a “reversion,” especially when coming from someone such as Taleb, is that it implies an inescapable linear sense of time and space; forward or backward, future or history. What about recognizing that a classical age in 2009 is not a reversion but a reconstitution. Herein, we would gather tools used in and learned from a classical age and reconfigure their application to our current state of affairs. The toolbox upon which the U.S. has depended for much of the last century (at least), of dividends, debts, profits, etc., can no longer be applied to the problems of the U.S.; upon this all dystopians and utopians alike must agree.

Nassim Talib is author of The Black Swan a book about how “exceptional, unpredictable event[s]…carry a huge impact.” Talib describes himself on his blog Fooled By Randomness, in this way: “I am interested in how to live in a world we don’t understand very well—in other words, while most human thought (particularly since the enlightenment) has focused us on how to turn knowledge into decisions. I am interested in how to turn lack of information, lack of understanding, and lack of “knowledge” into decisions—how not to be a turkey.” Talib’s solution to avoiding Turkey-dom, is trial and error, to tinker. “We need more tinkering: uninhibited, aggressive, proud tinkering. We can be scared and worried about the future, or we can look at it as a collection of happy surprises that lie outside the path of our imagination…as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.” This tinkering requires immense flexibility of mind, body, and spirit. Perhaps this is why Talib lives by the ancient adage “you find peace by coming to terms with what you don’t know.”

If you are comfortable living in the world and owning what you do not know, is it not easier to respond to an unexpected situation with a solution that has a better outcome? Is this why Carolyn Baker, author of Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Civilization’s Collapse, is so excited by collapse? “ …that’s the exciting thing about collapse—the breaking down of barriers and definitions that don’t work anymore.” Perhaps those barriers and definitions never really stood with foundations to begin with, and were simply created post-facto as a rationalization for randomly occurring synchronicities.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Physics Applied to Human Relationships

All actions have an equal and opposite reaction. Physicists have proven this central law of physics down the to the subatomic scale. So why is it then so difficult to recognize that such a law also exists at the human scale. Causal relationships that can be drawn in any number of directions across multiple points or perspectives, are so great in number and rich with possibility that we must indeed begin to recognize that with every decision, transaction, point of engagement, there are consequences. Or perhaps we do recognize this causal relationship we have with all that surrounds us, but given the magnitude of the results, we choose what is easiest—see the effects that are closest to us and ignore the reverberations beyond our immediate surroundings. The inherent problem here is that we have grown our reaches far beyond our immediate world—the world comprised of our immediate relationships. Globalization has created a new spectrum through which our daily choices travel far beyond our localized experience.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's ALL About Love

No, this is not a rehash of the lovely, easy-listening ,songbird Sade. It is in fact a statement about what I am growing to believe is the the true secret to success. A confession, when I started my career, my insecurity coupled with a dysfunctional work environment, resulted in my operating in a constant state of fear. From that place of fear, I could not get out of the behavior patterns of being outwardly tough, sometimes even mean and vengeful. I still think about the people with whom I worked to whom I still owe apologies for being such a bitch. But what I learned from those three years was that operating from fear and projecting confidence while not having any is an unsustainable modus operandi. I quit that job and took some time to refocus and renew myself. In some ways it felt like starting over, and in other ways, once I had accepted that I had to work on myself so that I could free myself from the shackles of fear, the universe opened up for me. I got great work as a freelancer with really good organizations working to make the world a better place. As time went on, I learned how to lead from below instead of the traditional top-down corporate model. I learned that compassion aided any negotiations. I learned that when I could find the energy to operate from love, I felt fed, full of integrity, powerful, free.

Discussed on Charles Henderson's blog www.nextworlddesign.com is the LeWeb conference about web 2.0. The theme is LOVE. "As explained by conference co-founder and organizer Loic Le Meur, the gathering is not about technology, business, or even social networking, 'It's all about love.' Embedded in his remarks is the weighty claim that the web itself, together with human community, commerce and, yes, spirituality, all center around love."

So what does this mean? If each person on the planet operated with more generosity of spirit towards their colleagues, towards strangers, towards themselves, we all would benefit. Let's all confront our fears and start loving ourselves by loving one another.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Trends in Philanthropy

I was very interested to read the new briefing produced by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, funded by Bank of America. The research conducted aims to better understand the effects of our current economy on charitable giving. The subject pool was determined by household income-- over $200,000, and from there was randomized throughout the U.S. The highlight finding from my point of view was that, of all the options given to the question "why do you stop giving to a cause or organization?", 60% of respondents claimed that they no longer felt connected to the organization. This is very different from not believing in the mission of the organization or a change in tax policy. This has to do with a very essential human need-- a need for emotional connection.

Why is connection to an organization so important for the philanthropic community when determining how it will allocate its funds? Is it because people are living disconnected lives in most other ways? I believe that the axial shift I referenced in my first posting, will require us to learn how to live more attuned and integrated lives, in order to heal and repair the world and ourselves. Our values need to live and breathe through each decision we make. People have to disconnect to avoid what psychologists call cognitive dissonance; "the theory that we act to reduce the discomfort (dissonance) we feel when two of our thoughts are inconsistent. For example, when our awareness of our attitudes and of our actions clash, we can reduce the resulting dissonance by changing our attitudes.Myers, David Exploring Psychology, 7th Ed." I know many people for whom work is a necessary evil-- it's a paycheck, it's health insurance. But it is NOT so many things-- it is not an extension of ourselves at our best-- it is not the joy of our daily routine. In some cases it is even more extreme than that-- look at Bernard Madoff or Elliot Spitzer.

I worry about the people, specifically young people who had their whole lives "figured out." They were on the linear path from an elite high school to an Ivy League undergraduate education with a B.A. in business. They went on to work for a few years at an accounting firm and are now in business school for that golden M.B.A. And now the economy is falling apart and the 100-hour-weeks don't promise that mid-six-figure salary with the bonus to ensure that life of luxury that justifies working so hard for the company's bottom line. Where do these people go? How do companies deal with this reality? How do our young investment bankers and traders deal with this upset-- this major source of cognitive dissonance? Do they have the values, the essential human resources to ride out this storm? I'm pretty sure that business school didn't cover this in the curriculum. And when the payoff has been measured in monetary terms and there is no payoff any more, what on earth do these people do?

You, dear reader, can help figure this one out. I am interested in what you think. Comment away!

The Axial Shift: Social Entrepreneurship

My business partner, Primavera, sent me to the front page of yesterday's New York Times Business Section to see the article entitled Starting Over, With a Second Career Goal of Changing Society. I am so pleased to see Harvard University is joining the social entrepreneur movement with its new initiative "intended to help [fourteen fellows] learn how to be successful social entrepreneurs or leaders of nonprofit organizations focused on social problems like poverty, health, education, and the environment." The pilot program is geared towards individuals in their 50s and early 60s who have had successful careers in a variety of sectors and for whom a traditional retirement of travel, golf, and liesure is not an appealing use of their time. There are other social entrepreneur programs at educational institutions like Columbia University's RISE-- Research Initiative on Social Entrepreneurship. As its name suggests, RISE seeks to research and understand better the business of social entrepreneurship.

While both the Harvard intiative and Columbia's RISE are indicators that the trend of social entrepreneurship is growing, so too are online ventures like www.change.org and www.changents.com. These online ventures are social networking platforms with the explicit purpose of linking individuals to ways to implement social change. There is a very powerful underlying tool here that I am excited to see come to fruition in a multitude of ways. What these social platforms are doing for social entrepreneurship is what www.facebook.com is doing for consumer focused advertising, among other money-making ventures. The members of www.change.org and www.changents.com are already a self-identified group of do-gooders. This means that the corporate sector is likely looking for ways to understand, connect, and ultimately relate to this growing group. If the corporate sector sees a possiblity to profit from impacting social change, we'll all benifit greatly.

Imagine if the best way to relate to a group of powerful consumers is to build water wells for villages in Africa, fund community-based education projects on sustainable water catchment and farming, train a new generation of leaders equipped to negotiate conflict in our global community, or fund projects that benefit low-income women and girls-- now that is change I wish to see in the world.