Our Feelings Are Being Hacked

If you think you’re immune from being hacked (and, yes, I mean you, not your computer), then you’re probably not aware. And perhaps there is nothing as dangerous as lack of awareness.

Yuval Noah Harari outlines 21st-century hacking dangers in this Ted Talk and offers suggestions for resistance. It’s well worth watching. And, more importantly, it’s worth considering the risks and challenges to individuality. To independent thought. The risks to you. To me.

It’s also worth questioning whether we should be participating in certain internet platforms such as Facebook. Some time back I decided to drop out of FB and am convinced it was the right thing to do.

Last week I watched the Steelers-Panthers football game on Fox. It came with Amazon Prime. It’s the first I had watched commercial television in a while. OMG, the commercials. And the product placement in the announcer booth. The entire experience was commercialized and manipulative. It was a good reminder of the constant attacks on our independence. On independent thought.

Awareness. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. And realizing how unaware I still am.

What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

What Would a Great Country Look Like?

Part of my problem (and I have come to the conclusion, belatedly, that it is a problem) is that I think about how things could be, whether the “things” are a firm, company, city, or country. I’m not a particularly imaginative person, but when it comes to organizations and social structures, my mind is imaginative (beyond what’s good for me). And my level of contentment with the status quo is low.

It’s a problem, I’ve come to believe, because it leads nowhere except to frustration and disappointment. On a national scale, the country I envision cannot possibly come about given humans’ desires and traits. This focus on the could leads to disappointment on a micro scale, too — that is, with respect to individual firms, companies, and other organizations (such as colleges) — because of the ironclad grip of inertia and status quo. The could simply cannot garner critical support. In other words, I’m out of step and always will be. I get it. Finally.

That said, Vera, I thought I might share with you a glimpse of what a great country looks like in my mind. It’s an appropriate time, I suppose, because we have a president who says he’s making America “great again.” Yet it’s clear to me that his concept of greatness is vastly different from mine. But my intent is not to debate who’s right or wrong. Each person can decide for him or herself.

In any case, here’s what our country would look like if we decided to make it great as guided by my imagination — my hopes and dreams and the public policies I would like to see implemented: Continue reading

When the Goal Is to Win, We All Lose

Congressman Trey Gowdy has conducted himself in a highly partisan manner (although I assume some rabid Republicans might have approved of his unnecessarily divisive and highly offensive conduct). Indeed, based on the standards of conduct any parent would try to instill in their children, it’s fair to say Mr. Gowdy’s conduct has been cringeworthy. Shameful. Despicable.

But no matter what you might think of him and the damage he’s done to America, it’s worth your time watching this interview of Congressman Gowdy. It’s a reminder of what our political parties are all about and the kind of government the good people of the Unites States are willing to accept.

In Gowdy’s own words, “the goal is to win.” The best interests of the country be damned.

This is where we are today. It does not bode well for the future of our country.

America Needs to Rethink Its Views about Government and Corporations

Yesterday I read in the newspaper about a former executive of Volkswagen who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in his company’s notorious scheme to defraud the U.S. by rigging the emissions tests of VW autos. I also read about the CEO of a company who resigned in the face of allegations of serious misrepresentations of financial information (another Enron although of much smaller scale).

Once again I am left to wonder, How did we get it into our heads in this country that government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good? My reaction is always the same: people who think that way have never worked for a corporation (or at least never held an executive position in one).

That’s not to say corporations are evil and that everyone who works for one is bad. Hardly. And it’s not to say that everyone who works for government is good or conscientious, either. Hardly.

It is to say, however, that government has a proper role to play. Government is not inherently bad. It’s necessary. And, through government, a lot of good has been accomplished in the world. We should stop trying to tear it down and put a little more effort into making it as good as it can be. But that doesn’t seem to be our goal these days. Instead, we seem to be ceding control to our corporations, because, as we’re led to believe: government is bad, business is good. You’d think the flaw in this position would be obvious, but you’d be wrong. Many smart people now believe it to be true.

Most of us who’ve spent a career in business — and particularly those of us in the legal field — know that claim is a bunch of bull. Indeed, there is a helluva lot of criminal, fraudulent and unethical activity going on within our corporations. We should stop pretending there isn’t. Just read the frinkin’ papers. We also should stop pretending that corporations are so incredibly efficient. Most aren’t.

Some of the most conscientious, ethical people whom I’ve had the privilege of dealing with work for government. And for business. And some of the slimiest people whom I’ve observed in action have worked for corporations. And for the government. You even elected some of them.

It’s indisputable that there are good and bad actors in both government and industry. That’s the point. Both ethical and unethical behaviors can be found in both. And both corporations and government can be inefficient and wasteful.

I don’t understand what’s behind this extreme deference we’re showing to business these days, other than to conclude it’s just one more example of the power of propaganda. Republicans have been trying to tear down government for the past 40 years or more, and they’ve largely succeeded, principally through the tool of relentless propaganda. As a result, the corporations’ lobbyists are now writing our tax code, corporations (e.g., Facebook) are allowing themselves to be used by foreign agents to influence our elections, corporations are polluting our environment in violation of laws, corporations are shipping jobs overseas and still other corporations are acquiring monopoly power, unchecked by our neutered government antitrust enforcers. Indeed, we seem to be on the verge of handing corporate America the keys to the car.

We’re paying a steep price. And we’ll pay an even higher price in the future if we take these misguided ideas to their illogical extremes. But at least the corporations will be happy. And why shouldn’t they be?

Conservatism At Its Worst

I lived in a blue state for five years: Colorado. For heaven’s sake, we even decriminalized marijuana.

I recently moved to a red state: Indiana. Yet it feels the other way around.

Not entirely of course. You’ll find some of the worst roads in the country in Indiana and Indianapolis. I suspect it’s because of the brand of fiscal conservatism here that is championed by people such as former governor (now vice president) Mike Pence. Penny wise and pound foolish. That’s a generous characterization.

It’s conservatism that thinks the only thing that matters is lower taxes, regardless of the impact on living standards or social well-being. It’s conservatism that shifts costs from the rich to the poor and working class (often via hidden subsidies). It’s conservatism that rejects the ideals upon which the country was founded and instead embraces the radical ideology that government is inherently bad. In essence, it’s a conservatism that is inherently anti-democratic.

As noted investor Jim Chanos recently remarked:

In the U.S., an attitude of hostility toward government involvement in the economy has developed over the last several decades. In the U.K., when it comes to the economy, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party both see a role for government. The Conservatives see a role that needs to be shaped and controlled and limited, while Labour feels that government should have a bigger role. But they both understand that it has a meaningful role to play. In the U.S. we have a much different situation. The Democratic Party in the U.S. is more like the Conservative Party in the U.K., while the GOP is a party that is actually opposed to the government, taking the view that the government is bad and needs to be reduced or limited. That’s a significant difference, and it shows up in our infrastructure.

And so it does. Indiana, as a bastion of conservatism, has a lot of shitty roads and streets.

With exceptions. Fortunately, we live in one such exception: Carmel (great roads!).

I’m told Carmel is really conservative, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s investment in public infrastructure and economic development far outstrips any place we’ve ever lived. As a result, it’s a vibrant place to live, replete with cultural, entertainment, outdoor and other amenities. (To be fair, however, it’s also obvious Carmel has more money that many other cities in the state and that it’s success would not be easily replicated in other parts of the state.)

In any case, compare that to my blue state experience in Loveland, Colorado, a city that sits square in the middle of one of the fastest growing, dynamic economies in the country, spanning from Fort Collins in the north to Colorado Springs in the south, with Boulder and Denver in between.

Loveland’s downtown is shoddy and embarrassing. Yet city council refuses to invest even a few million dollars in infrastructure upgrades and streetscaping. They finally initiated a big downtown project, but did so begrudgingly while still refusing to upgrade the adjacent commercial and retail corridor.

Loveland’s schools aren’t first-rate, either. I can’t think of anything more important than the quality of a community’s schools. But kids aren’t the highest priority in Loveland.

Meanwhile, Loveland sits on more than $200 million of reserves in the bank (on which it actually loses money due to its dubious investment policies and management), and stubbornly refuses to finance public infrastructure with bonds. The mayor and council persons tout their fiscal conservatism, but in reality they’re simply making some imprudent, short-sighted decisions.

But that’s the way much of conservatism in the States is these days: short-sighted and self-destructive. Perhaps there is no greater example of the self-destructive nature of this ideology than Kansas.

If this new brand of conservatism thinks it’s a good idea to ignore public infrastructure, public education and the growing inequity of income and wealth in our country, its adherents will be in for a surprise. The impact on their economies, competitiveness, standards of living and social stability will be profound over the mid to long term.

Moreover, if this newfangled belief in the inherent evilness of self-government spreads, people will be in for a harsh surprise by what such an ideology yields.

We’re seeing conservatism at its worst today. But this too shall pass, Vera. Will it pass before it gets worse? That isn’t clear.

In any case, I’m eager to see what it looks like when you’re old enough to vote. I hope it will look better. A lot better.

(P.S. Liberalism At Its Worst will be forthcoming.)