Friday, October 14, 2011

Pervasive Politics: Right Wing Ideologs and Economic Tensions Invade Non-Political Discussions

The other day, I was reading a post about jobs in the online version of EE Times. The post reflects on the notion that, even in sophisticated manufacturing like the technology that comes to life in wafer fabs, the trend over the past forty years has been an exodus from the US. While technology has been going global, jobs have been going away from the US. The post then talks about an EE Times effort to try to build a list of what the top jobs for the future are with these trends in mind.

What struck me about the post was not the flavor or the content, it was the comments. The usual political rhetoric surrounding who's to blame for the economy quickly bubbled to the surface. It's not the first time -- comments on posts about Solyndra were more focused on themes of political corruption and questions about the validity of climate change.

I was similarly struck by a similar experience surrounding's Dreamforce conference. At Dreamforce, they connect you through a Chatter application that enables you to engage with all of your fellow conference attendees and to follow conference threads. One of the keynote events featured Marc Benioff discussing technology with Eric Schmitt. In addition to his current role at Google and past roles at Sun and Novell, Schmitt has also provided technology guidance to the Obama administration -- technology, jobs, and the potential solutions to the ailing economy was one of the topics that came up. You could almost feel a tense ideological discomfort coming from some of the audience in Moscone South that afternoon, and that tension boiled over into the Chatter stream in days that followed. Again, no comments on Schmitt's reflections on the challenges of a hardware business or a market leader from his days at Sun. Instead, the comments were about how awful it was to bring politics into a business conference.

On the same day when I read the EE Times post, I happened to catch this segment of NPR's Marketplace Money radio program. It's a discussion with commentator, David Frum about his decision to step back from providing commentary on the program. The long and short of his discussion is that, while he still considers himself a conservative, he doesn't feel like he represents "the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days". Why? Here's how he explained:
We have got a sick patient -- the American economy. And we can see that the patient in the next bed -- the European economy -- he's looking even sicker and there's a real risk of contagion. And what I think we have to do at a moment like this: Have a very, very open creation of money and credit. This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here's where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn't necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree.
In short, I think this underscores that sense that ideology and rhetoric have overshadowed analysis and reason. The take-away: if you get two experts to agree on what the solution is but the solution doesn't match your beliefs, then you need to find another expert.

The worst aspect of this superheated ideological energy is that it bodes poorly for the prospect of real, corrective action. To understand just how bad it is, consider this great article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about California's struggling economy and a reflection on the Schwarzenegger years. A colleague recently forwarded me this link after we spent some time talking about statistical analytics and Wall Street finance. But if you had any doubts about how bad our economic situation is, consider this quote from the article:
San Jose has the highest per capita income of any city in the United States, after New York. It has the highest credit rating of any city in California with a population over 250,000. It is one of the few cities in America with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, but only because its bondholders have the power to compel the city to levy a tax on property owners to pay off the bonds. The city itself is not all that far from being bankrupt.
These are real, complex problems. Put in product terms, these are critical issues. We need corrective action. We need solutions. Put in Frum's terms, the doctors tell us that our sick patient needs medicine -- but there is still a vocal segment that insists on faith healing or that sickness is divine will and some sort of grand moral failure. Unfortunately, in many of our business and communication channels, analytical discussions of solutions are often being taken hostage by this ideology and political rhetoric, by the voice of anti-science, anti-reason, and anti-analysis. It leaves you wondering whether as a society, we're going to let be able to prevent these macro forces from running everything into the ground.

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