Honor and The Lost Art of Diplomacy

The killing of Osama bin Laden brought me back to a time thirty years ago when I passed by the Pakistani military base in Abbottabad near bin Laden's compound. Afghan man - Peshawar desert camp I was in Pakistan for the summer working with a refugee agency. We traveled all over northern Pakistan looking for small encampments of Afghan refugees who had fled their country during the Soviet invasion. 

This picture is of an Afghan man whose family was camped on a hot, desert plain between Peshawar and the famed Khyber Pass.  We took food, clothing and some tents to this small, very destitute camp of a few hundred people. After our truck was unloaded, this man came up to me, took both my hands in his, shook them, and then reached up and stroked the beard on my chin.

Our guide told me that what he had done was to honor me with his respect and thanks in a very traditional Afghan manner.

Last week I attended the retirement dinner of a gentleman with whom I had occasion to work with over the past few years. It was a nice event to honor his service, and celebrate the next stage of life for he and his wife.

I went not because we were close friends and colleagues, but to honor him and his service. It was something I did as much for me as for him. By that I mean that it was important for me to take the time, make the sacrifice to travel out of town to honor him. In honoring him, I supported what I believe is a missing practice in our society.

Honor is more that recognition for someone's service. It is the respect we owe to one another. It is how our relationships are intended to function in society.

Think for a moment of your office. Let the faces and names of all the people with whom you regularly interact pass before you. Imagine what the workplace would be like if each of you honored one another as your ongoing practice of relating.

Honor is the respect that lies at the heart of diplomacy.

Diplomacy is the practice of respect applied in places of diverse cultures. It is the ability of one person to be able to empathize with another person, even though their cultural, ethnic and philosophical backgrounds are not similar.

It was what made my encounter with this Afghan gentleman so influential upon my life. We had nothing in common, at all, yet we connected at a level of respect that I don't with people who are much more like me. Our diplomatic moment was an act of gratitude on his part. I was honored by his thanks, and I share his story today was a way of thanking him in abstentia for teaching me a lesson that I would have never learned in a book.

This type of respect is a form of humility that places the dignity of the other person ahead of one's own prerogatives. It is what I see missing in much of the social and civic interaction that takes place in our society. I fear this kind of diplomacy will retreat further into obscurity as we entered the 2012 political campaign season.

How I am approaching the 2012 campaign.

I am an independent, undecided, non-aligned voter.  I am neither liberal nor conservative, neither Republican nor Democrat. I am a political outlier.

I have decided that I'm going to keep a running tab in my head as to whose supporters are the nastiest, most divisive, most condescending of the campaign. I will base my vote on the candidate and his or her supporters by who shows the highest level of respect and honor to their opponents and their supporters. 

My reason for doing this is that I can no longer stand the way we practice politics.  The practice of demonizing your opponent is a practice of cowardice and dishonor. It is cowardice because it plays to the crudest, most divisive elements of our society, as if they are those who hold genuine power. They do not.

It is dishonorable because its purpose is to demean and defeat, not by intellectual reason and logical persuasion, but by the destruction of the person him or herself.

I feel so strongly about this that I have also decided to refuse to buy the books of authors, watch the movies and television shows of actors, and follow those public figures who practice divisive politics. The beauty of social media, of Twitter and Facebook in particular, is that it shows the true colors of those who practice this sort of political gamesmanship. I don't care how important your latest book is, or whether your movie has Oscar potential, if you lower yourself into the gutter of dishonorable politics, I'll delete your blog from my Google reader and your books boxed and put away in a closet. 

My point has nothing to do with the positions of your candidate or your political party. It has everything to do with civility, honor, and yes, diplomacy.

What I've learned.

To live with honor and to practice diplomacy in our daily lives is not easy. It is counter-cultural, even prophetic in its application to our world today. It means that while we may disagree with another person, we can also honor them with respect, even if their behavior is a demonstration of a lack of their own self-respect.

I understand, therefore, that as we enter this new Presidential election campaign season, that your candidate is dishonored when you treat his or her opponents and supporters with dishonor.

I understand that your reasons for not voting for your candidate's opponent are not the same as having positive reasons for voting for them.

I understand that while pollsters say that negative campaigning wins votes, that it also poisons the well of respect that is required for the diplomacy that civic leadership demands.

I understand that dishonor in any context easily finds it way into others. Consider carefully what kind of atmosphere you want in your social and organizational life. The line between politics and the rest of life and work is razor thin.

I understand that to be honorable and diplomatic does not mean you give up your values and principles. It means that you do not win by destroying the other person. You lose by dishonoring your own values.

The place of Honor in The Five Actions of Gratitude Five Actions of Gratitude - blogpix

Honor Others is the fourth action of the Five Actions of Gratitude. Without this action, the other four are not sustainable.For to live with honor in one's relationships requires the ability to recognize the value and dignity of other people, which is the basis of diplomacy.

When we find reason to Say Thanks, we are seeing a quality in that other person that is worth recognizing.

When we Give Back, we are recognizing, like my Afghan friend, the gifts that others have made to our lives.

When we Make Welcome, we are saying to those we treat hospitably that we honor you by opening up ourselves to you.

When we Create Goodness, we do so with a view to contribute, to make a difference to others, to others we honor by our acts of goodness.

I take my cue from the advice that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, Greece two millennia ago.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

This is the high standard that honor demands. It is not idealistic to believe so. It is logical and pragmatic to recognize that a team or an organization or a nation that acts in this way will be stronger, more confident, and better able to manage the constantly shifting environment that our world provides us.

To honor is to be fully human. To practice dishonor is to lose our humanity.  It is a choice we make every day. And it is a choice that we will make on November 6, 2012.


Trend Lines Going Forward

Lemhi Dawn 4 9-16-04

It is hard to believe that the first decade of the 21st century is now history. It has not been the decade that most of us expected. It has been filled with terror, war, economic disruption, political disappointment, natural disasters that showcased governmental inadequacies, and the emergence of social media as a force. In many respects, it was a decade where society did not move forward, and little prospects for broad scale improvement in the near future. 

Andy Crouch, an insightful cultural interpreter, has posted his assessment of the 10 tends that marked the first decade of the 2000's.

  1. Connection
  2. Place
  3. Cities
  4. The End of the Marjority
  5. Polarity
  6. The Self Shot
  7. Pornography
  8. Informality
  9. Liquidity
  10. Complexity

I'm in basic agreement with most of what Crouch offers here. However, it raises questions for me.

If these are trends, then where are they leading us? 

What is the line that extends from the past through the present to the future?

What should we do in response to these trends?

These trends are markers or sign-posts of changes that have been long in development.  I see these trends leading forward in the following ways.

Connection / Place / Cities / Pornography / The Self Shot

This trend line is complex because it is a mixture of several converging ones.

The need ...

for relationship,

for rootedness in a place,

for a place of openness, discovery and genuine diversity,

for intimacy, and,

for a real understanding of one's own identity.

All these are converging. Each of these trends have their problematic dimension though:

Of the shallowness of online connection

Of the disconnection of people from the physical places where they live and work

Of the economic viability of both rural and urban environments that fail to create an environment for human creativity

Of the failure of the institution of marriage to be a viable form of human intimacy for large numbers of people

Of a religious and political culture that offers narcissism rather than human community as a basis for human purpose.

The End of the Majority / Polarity / Informality / Liquidity / Complexity

This trend line is moving fast away from the social conventions and institutions of previous generations. The status of elite groups and institutions once secured by a culture of common perceptions and simple approaches is under going dramatic change. One-size-fits-all, works-for-all, and is available-to-all is no longer reflective of the way the world works, if it ever truly did.  Instead, complexity is the structure of society. As a result, no single or generic approach works. Instead many different approaches can be effective. The key here then is to understand how complexity impacts us on a daily basis.

Donald Norman writes in Living with Complexity,

"The keys to coping with complexity are to be found in two aspects of understanding. First is the design of the thing itself that determines its understanding. Does it have an underlying logic, a foundation that, once mastered, makes everything fall into place? Second is our own set of abilities and skills. Have we taken the time and effort to understanding and master the structure? Understandability and understanding: two critical keys to mastery."

Questions that I have.

What is the underlying logic that explains the meaning of these trends?

What is the "design (of the thing itself)" of the time we live?  

What is the historical movement that helps us to gain understanding of the past decade, the past generation, and what we may expect of the next decade and generation.

My conclusion is that we are in the midst of dramatic period of unprecedented change. In order to understand these trends, we need to understand the assumptions that have guided human history for the past several centuries.

For example, beginning in the 18th century a shift began that impacted virtually every country. It was the shift from aristocracy to democracy. What may not be readily evident in this shift is the continuity that was maintained throughout these great historic changes.

I wrote about this shift in my review of Lucino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. It is a picture of the change from the old aristocratic order to new world order of democratic progressivism. In that post, I include a long dialogue that the Prince of Sicily and the representative of the new modern, progressive government of Italy have. Here's a portion.

The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.

What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.

Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?

The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.

Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.

The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.

Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.

The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -

Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.

The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.

The picture here is of the clash between the ideals of progressivism and the exhaustion of the old order. With the former there was a belief that the world's problems could be solved, and with the latter, a realization that even in the midst of change, there is not much that changes.

What we can see here is not the replacement of the aristocracy with a populist government, but rather the transfer of power from one kind of elitism to another. It is the elitism of modern democratic progressivism that is reaching the same point that the old order aristocrats reached two centuries ago. That exhaustion is the inadequacy of the ideas and values that inspired revolution to create a sustainable society in a highly complex context. Ultimately, what happens is the loss of the ideals themselves and the adoption of a formula that is designed to resist change and perpetuate the system.

This trend suggests other trends.

The end of institutions as a unifiying force in society.

Whether those institutions are political, religious, social or educational, they no longer command the loyalty or respect by people as they once did.  Instead, communities of causes have replaced them and is seen in Crouch's Polarity trend.

This emerging trend is really the mixture of several changes.

A shift from a global to a local perspective as locus of solution making.

The impracticality of one-size-fits-all approaches to solving social and econonic problems is reflected in the persistance of the recession in its many forms.  This a product of the growing complexity of society that responds better to small, local initiatives than those applied from a single source.

A shift from a national orientation to a relational one.

As I've written previously, online technology enables us to work with colleagues globally as if we are locally connected. National origin means less, and personal values mean more in this context of local collaboration on a global scale.

The emergence of belief as the common bond that unites people organizationally.

One doesn't have to look farther than the passionate advocacy of the environmental movement or the Tea Party movement to see how traditional institutions are being replaced my groups of people who form temporary communities to advocate for a cause. This puts institutional elites at a disadvantage as institutional integrity has been less about causes or beliefs and more about process and operational integrity.

These are some trends that I see, and see them as positive developments. However, there are aspects of these changes that I don't think are quite yet apparent, yet will bring a new level of disruptive change as they emerge.

Many of the governing assumptions of our time are based on social, political and economic philosophies that were born in the era of The Leopard. I'm convinced that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal progressivism and its socialist varient, and individualism will come to be replaced by new ideas that provide a way forward.  It is my impression that we think these are given, guiding assumptions of contemporary society. I'm not convinced that these philosophies represent the future, but the past. It is why I see the two political parties as regressive, rather than visionary.  As these ideologies lose their vitality and relevance, their advocates have become more divisive and defensive. In my opinion, this divisiveness is a sign of the fading viability of these social philosophies.

If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd wager that the future trends that we'll see emerging over the next few years are:

New organizational structures that are designed for shared responsibility and collaboration.

Values as the unifying force, not only in organizations, but in society.

New confederations of cities and organizations that circumvent the artificial constraints of state and national boundaries.

Lastly, what should leaders do to be prepared to adapt to these changes?

1. Develop the leadership capacity of everyone in your organization.

2. Build organizational community through an emphasis on and the operationalizing of the Connecting Ideas of the Circle of Impact - Purpose, Mission, Values, Vision and Impact.

3. Take time to develop an understanding of the logic of what is happening locally and globally. Test assumptions, and be positively self-critical. In other words, think for yourself by constantly seeking to develop your capacity to observe, think, assess and make judgments.

My wish for each of us in 2011 is that we find new strength of purpose, greater capacity for leadership, and an ability to make a difference that matters that changes our world for the better.  All the best to you in your leadership endeavors.


Taleb on Skepticism

Smart people many times outsmart themselves because they are confident about their intellectual ability. I place all politicians in this classification. The result is not an expansive mind open to truth or reality, but rather a closed mine of opinion and suspicion. When our minds become closed, we treat our opinions as personal statements, and we treat those who oppose us as threats or even enemies.

This is what I thought of when I watched this interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. Here they are discussing David Cameron, UK Conservative Party leader who may well be the next Prime Minister. In this instance there is no difference between the politics of Britain and of the US. The difference is between kinds of liberalism and conservatism.

The key here is skepticism. Taleb is making a differentiation within the traditional economic ideology of both the left and the right. They are talking about conservative economic approaches, but the point applies to liberal/ progressives as well.

Skepticism isn't a tool applied to other people's ideas. It is applied to one's own decisions. It recognizes that every free decision holds risk. The question is how to mitigate the more disastrous consequences related to risk.

At the heart of Taleb's point is the need for politicians to be circumspect and humble about their own ideas. Their confidence and the public's declining confidence in them should be a sign that something is amiss.

I find no evidence of this kind of intellectual integrity by the politicians in Washington. This concerns me as it should every person on the planet. What happened a year ago is possible again. Where's the skepticism by the news media, by academics, by the public? There is evidence of it, but it is written off as disloyalty. In essence, check your brain at the door. Just be a good citizen and think as your are told.

I think it is time for a great deal more skepticism. Remember that on election day Tuesday.

If you have not read Taleb's books Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, I suggest you do. He is an excellent tonic to the optimism that passes for reason in Washington.


Quick Takes: 10 Principles for a Black Swan-proof world

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan offers ten principles for a Black Swan-proofed world in the Financial Times that is worth reading.

Here's some of what he suggests.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. Such systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy; adding debt produces wild and dangerous gyrations and leaves no room for error. Capitalism cannot avoid fads and bubbles: equity bubbles (as in 2000) have proved to be mild; debt bubbles are vicious.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible "expert" advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbour the certainties that normal citizens require. Citizens should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they do not control).

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the "Nobel" in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

This is a rational look at the economic system. However, the current system is far from rational because it is built upon a collusion of greed between Washington and Wall Street.

My 11th principle is get the politics out of the economy.
Politics only encourages greater division and corruption. Politics is not about governance, but about power, and power is about who wins and loses. The system we have now is too fragile (see #1 above) to allow corrupted self-interest be the guiding ethic of global economics. There are plenty of examples of enlightened self-interest, of philanthropy and social enterprise, for us to believe that we have now is our only option.

Read Taleb's whole article.

Quick Takes: Megan McCain - the future of politics?

There are reasons why I am not a member of a political party. And there are conditions that could lure me back.


To me this is a more interesting picture of the future of politics than President Obama.


Taleb: the Risk Maverick

I've reference Nassim Nicholas Taleb quite a bit over the past few weeks. His books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan are essential readings for understanding how we find ourselves in the financial crisis that we are in, and why a whole different way of thinking is needed if we are going to survive.

I keep bringing this topic up because what the federal government does about the economy is the most important issue in this presidential campaign.

I linked to this video on an earlier post. It is ten minutes long, and worth watching because it presents a different perspective on our situation than you get from the candidates or the media. It is important that we understand the wider implications of this financial crisis.

Is there any doubt why there is so much fear? 

So, what is a person to do?  Two things.

One, we need to admit to ourselves that not only do we not know enough about the economy and what the candidates will do, but we don't even know what we don't know.  The purpose of this recognition is personal humility and the need for greater skepticism about the claims and promises of political candidates and financial experts make.

Two, we need to learn to look very carefully at our decisions, especially those where we are dependent upon experts to give us information we need. The way to do this is ask questions. Don't be satisfied to easily when there are huge consequences involved.

The implication to me is that we are at a unique juncture in our history and this presidential election could well determine the course of global history for the next generation.


Quick Takes: Taleb on the Crisis

If you've read me for a while, you'll know that I am a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the former derivatives trader and author of Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.  He's written about the current financial crisis here and there is an excellent interview with him in Time. If you are not familiar with Taleb's worldview, start with the Time interview.

According to Taleb, black swans are ocurrences that are unforeseen yet happened. In the Time interview he points to the rise of the internet as one positive one, and the 9/11 attacks as another. At his website, Taleb has extracted a set of quotes from The Black Swan that describes one of the contributing factors to the global financial crisis that we are facing. Here's the quote.

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall.  The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it's only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (...)bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug.

The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events "unlikely".

There is no way to gauge the effectiveness of their lending activity by observing it over a day, a week, a month, or . . . even a century!

(...)  the real- estate collapse of the early 1990s in which the now defunct savings and loan industry required a taxpayer-funded bailout of more than half a trillion dollars. The Federal Reserve bank protected them at our expense: when "conservative" bankers make profits, they get the benefits; when they are hurt, we pay the costs.

Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it is sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most fit for survival.

As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (A related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.)

Please, don’t drive a school bus blindfolded.

Owing to [...] misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance—like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

My conclusion is that as a society we are practicing cognitive dissonance on a global scale. We are doing what Paul Simon penned his his classic '60s hit The Boxer, "People believe what they want to believe and disregard the rest."  People believe what they want to believe about the financial crisis, about presidential candidates, about whether whatever it is that they don't want to actually address in reality.

In my previous post on Michael Malone's rant about the decline of journalism, the same holds true there. The Black Swan of this election is not what we don't know about these candidates that will wreck havoc upon the country, but what we do know and what we choose to ignore.

The financial crisis we are in isn't a classic Black Swan. The signs were there for all to see if they only chose to do so. The problem isn't that we are not a smart people, but we are indifferent and ignorant of the consequenses of our opinions and choices. And no more amply seen in this year's presidential election.

Addendum: David Brooks, in today's NY Times, writes about Taleb and the growing influence of behavioral economists like Danny Kahneman, whom Taleb credits highly for his understanding of the perception of risk. It is an excellent look at what I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Brooks writes about Taleb.


His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck. And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Edge.org, who published a Taleb piece linked to above, also has a lot of material on Kahneman. This is pretty heavy stuff, but ultimately worthwhile. The simple idea that emerges is that we are much less rational, as intelligent beings, than we want to think of ourselves being. In reality, we are emotional beings who use our rationality to rationalize our choices. Hence, the person who is either emotionally conflicted or immature, could well make really bad decisions by practicing a high level game of self-deception.

The best treatment of self-deception is the Arbinger Institute book, Leadership and Self-Deception.  I highly recommend this book. It will be a revelation to you about how we fool ourselves into self-justifying rationalization that is intended to help avoid accountability for our bad decisions. It is the very thing which I see played out in the news over the past few weeks. Everyone is rushing to fix blame on someone else. As a result, we get a bail out plan that has not worked, and a market that is continuing to lose value.  What this tells me is that the people (wisdom of crowds?) is not yet emotionally comfortable with what the federal government is doing.

The same self-delusion that leads to looking for scape goats in our relationships, is at work in how this financial mess gets cleared up, and how we are selecting a president. You may not like George Bush's performance as president, but that is no basis for deciding who the next president will be. They should be selected on their own terms. As I told some friends yesterday, it feels like the 1970's all over again, now as then, the self-deception is at the heart of our decision making processes is alive and well.

And be sure to watch this PBS NewsHour interview with Taleb and his mentor Benoit Mandelbrot.


Are their assumptions valid?

Reading this Financial Times article - Deal could wreak havoc on candidates’ plans - the thought occurred to me that our elected officials and especially the presidential candidates are proceeding on with their campaigns as if nothing has really happened.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi comments in the article - “What does it do to our opportunities to invest in the American people?”

It means the American people will have to find ways to do it for themselves.

The guiding assumption for the past 75 years is that government exists as a stop gap for all sorts of ills that can afflict a society. What we are finding through the past months is that this assumption is no longer valid.

To say that our government is corrupt is really the wrong perspective. It is better to say that the way elections are held and governance conducted is no longer adequate.  In the past, the American public could look to government for support in times of crisis. However, now our world has become far too complex for an elective body to manage the competing demands of appealing to the electorate for votes and doing what is in the best interest of the country.

So, what's the answer? We need a smaller, more agile, more flexible federal governance system. At present, there really is no accountability for failures like what we've seen over the past few weeks.  Getting rid of the people responsible doesn't change anything. These people who are responsible are products of the system.

The further this election season progresses, the more fiscally conservative I am becoming. As I have reflected upon the candidates, I determined that Obama is not sufficiently different from McCain or Bush to make a difference. In his quest to fulfill the same assumption that Rep. Pelosi uttered, he will only make matters worse.  From the moment I heard his first speech in the primaries, my reaction to him has been that he will be the most expensive president in US history.

The assumptions that our national leaders have about their governance of the country need some serious revision. My ony hope is with those "Blue Dog Democrats" who courageously went against their party and voted no on the bail out bill.


The change they won't touch

Election seasons bring out the reactionary in me. The lies, slander and vague promises of change by candidates bothers me tremendously.

Both presidential candidates claim the change mantle. However, neither has addressed what to me is the more important long term crisis facing our country.  Neither discusses with any specificity how they will reduce the national debt. Complaints about the debt are not solutions. They are diversions from the real issue, which is spending.

The spending issue goes to a fundamental philosophy of governance that both parties have adopted. That is they spend money to demonstrate that they are doing the people's work. As a result businesses and community organizations across the country look to the federal government for various means to secure their economic viability. It is this economic codependence that troubles me for two reasons.

One is that this forces elected officials to compete for support from voters by showing how much federal tax dollars can be allocated by Congress to local projects.  These earmarks are a corrupting element in business, the non-profit world and government.  They remove the responsibility of the average citizen for the care of his or her local community.  Instead, the federal government is responsible.

For example, did you know that in the bail out bill there were earmark appropriations?  Here we are facing the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, and members of Congress are padding the legislation with local earmarks that essentially are intended to get them votes in a month.

Does this not trouble you?

There is a corrupting influence at work here. It is not only ethically corrupting, but also logically so. What ends up happening is that the political value of earmarks with the every increasing transfer of wealth from citizens to the federal government and back to special local interests changes the decision-making process in Congress. It is no longer what is best for the people and the nation, but what is best for me and the party.

The second reason this troubles me, and what steams me about our presidential candidates, is that the rising cost of the federal government is not an issue for them. Right now, my guess is that Barrack Obama will be our next President. Based on reading his policy statement online, my assumption is that he will become the most expensive President in US history. His orientation is to be a problem solver, yet the one problem he won't touch is the size of the US government. In appears that it will grow under an Obama administration, because his solutions all are centered in a governmental response. 

What I derived from the two campaigns is that they think that by finessing the tax structure, with tax breaks and tax increases, that they can resolve all these financial problems. I have serious doubts about their abilities to do this.  As the system currently exists, there is no incentive to do so.

As I said earlier, elections make me reactionary in ways that I am not normally prone to become. For the record, I have not joined the Obama band wagon. And I find McCain's appeal to his personal character of courage under fire and practice of a maverick reformer insufficient for what confronts us as a nation and a global community. I find neither of their appeals to change particularly convincing. Obama's is more a style change, and McCain far too narrow in focusing on reform alone.

So, I'm looking for a president who is more fiscally responsible for the whole cost of government. We'll see if either of them are up to the task.  I wish I was more optimistic about the prospects of the next administratoin, regardless of who wins.


The McCain Surge

Last night, as I sat watching the coverage of the congressional attempts to resolve our nation's financial crisis, and the role presidential candidates McCain and Obama are playing in this scenario, it finally dawned on me that John McCain is not the most erratic presidential candidate in US history, but quite possibly the shrewdest.

Over the past month, since the beginning of the Republican convention, one thing has been dominant. Change. Consider this.

First, McCain selects an unknown, Gov. Sarah Palin, as his VP running mate.  Then, in response to the impact of Hurricane Ike, they postpone the first day of the convention. And now, McCain has suspended his campaign to focus on the financial crisis in Washington and on Wall Street. This is certainly not conventional thinking about how to run a presidential campaign.

It is conventional thinking if you are a proponent of the administration's Iraqi surge strategy. What is that strategy? Simply put, you focus on protecting and strengthening the public's ability to squeeze out the enemy. The surge in Iraq is working because the Iragi people are involved in their own security.

Translate that strategy to a political campaign, and what you have is a campaign whose theme "County First" is not a slogan, but a plan of action. How do I know? Ask yourself what is more important  a presidential debate or a 700 billion dollar bail out plan that will cost each American citizen thousands of dollars. Which is more important?

McCain is a very cutting edge thinker. McCain has adopted a strategy system of fast thinking leading to actiBoyds_ooda_loopon that was developed by John Boyd, Air Force pilot and creator of what is known as the OODA loop

OODA stands for Observe - Orient - Decide - Act.

Read this description of McCain's use of the OODA Loop  by Chet Richards, one of the foremost experts on Boyd's strategic thinking. Written prior to McCain's actions this week, it makes sense.

The idea behind the OODA Loop is to act in such a way that it throws your opponent off guard. Part of the reason to do this is to learn precisely what your opponent is thinking. What has McCain learned about Obama and his campaign over the past month?

I'd say they have learned that Obama is a conventional politician whose inexperience is showing. He is an attractive, eloquent public figure. He is also an intellectual and has tried to win the election on the basis of ideas, albeit ideas that are not fully articulated.  So, he comes across as passive and not on top of the situation.

There is a huge risk involved for McCain. What he has to do is convinced the American people that he is working for them, and not Washington and Wall Street. He has deployed a political surge strategy, and just as the Iraqi surge was a military strategy with huge risks, with consistent application of the strategy it will work. The next month will be fascinating as I believe we should expect more surprises from McCain. And Barrack Obama, the one already annointed by many as the next great man in the White House, will be seen as either presidential or simply an inexperience first term Senator.