Friday, December 28, 2007

Lane and Oreskes’ The Genius of America

In The Genius of America, Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes write:

The message we are hearing is that our government does not work. The message we should be hearing is that our government is a reflection of our own divisions. What we need is not a new system of government. We need a renewed willingness to work out our differences and find compromises, consensus and that other now-popular phrase, common ground.

While that last sentence might sound like a naive call to higher principle, the authors argue that finding compromise amid conflicting interests is what the United States has done superbly well for more than 200 years—but not so well lately. They believe that political developments of the past few decades are starting to undermine the U.S. Constitutional system, which manages conflicts by a process of checks, balances, and compromise.

For example, Lane and Oreskes critique the rise of voter initiatives, such as California’s Proposition 13:

It won in a landslide among those who voted. But even so, fewer than 50 percent of California’s registered voters cast a yes vote for the proposition. Thus a minority of registered Californians decided to reduce tax burdens and and limit the capacity of the government to increase its future revenues.

It was appealingly easy to adopt this initiative. There was none of the scrutiny of normal legislative process nor the need for coalition building and compromise. No committee of one legislative house and then of the second could block its path to a vote. No requirement that a bill pass two separate legislative houses stood in the way. No executive stood waiving a veto pen. No colleagues were hovering around demanding compromise for support. No lobbyists were demanding changes. No time-consuming hearings from which concerns of the public or experts had to be addressed and weighed. No long public debates in which legislators had to explain why they favored or disfavored the issue. No arcane procedural rules blocked a vote either in a committee or legislative house. No worries that a wrong step might anger constituents. No competition among this idea and the thousands of other ideas wanting legislative attention. In short, the initiative did not have to pass through any of the screens that in the legislature protect against the tyranny of the majority or even the minority and require deliberation and consensus.

Although voter initiatives are a state-level phenomenon, the authors note the existence of a proposed National Initiative, associated with the long-shot presidential campaign of former Senator Mike Gravel. The authors are not forecasting doom at the hands of Mike Gravel, but they hold him as a symbol of what’s going wrong: a former Senator trying to make government better by short-circuiting it.

Another interesting example from relatively recent history:

In the mid-1980s, politicians were worried about the federal deficit and about the danger that voters would punish them for it. But there was no consensus on the steps to take to curb it: raise taxes, cut defense spending, cut social spending. So they adopted Gramm-Rudman, what [political author John] Ehrman calls “one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible laws ever passed.” The law gave to a non-elected official the power to simply cut the budget if the deficits didn’t shrink. This [cutting] was enacted without any legislative process. No hearings. No committee debate or vote. “Congress and the White House abandoned their political responsibilities for making fiscal decisions, and rushed instead to hand power to automatic, technical mechanisms,” wrote Ehrman. “This is hardly how republican institutions are intended to function.”

But during virtually the same period, Congress also enacted a tax reform measure that made substantial strides toward a simpler and fairer tax code. The measure demonstrated that “when politicians acted seriously, the political system was able to deal with complex issues quite well.” But this accomplishment was not the product of public virtue. “None of those in the process rose above party or personal interests.” The parties advocated their positions as hard as they could and then, recognizing that a winner-take-all attitude would fail, compromised. Tax reform was the system working just as the framers had designed it to. “In contrast, Gramm-Rudman was the product of panic and a desire to circumvent politics.”

The mention of “public virtue” touches a key theme in the book, that the genius of the Constitution is how it channels individuals’ and groups’ private self-interests into public virtue. The book’s first part recounts how the framers got there, as they learned from the flaws of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution’s predecessor.

The Articles assumed that each state would itself act with public virtue, doing what was best for the national interest. But there was no enforcement mechanism, so individual states often pursued their own interests, conflicting with each other and the national interest. This system rarely and barely worked, to the point that during the Revolutionary War, the bickering states almost starved George Washington’s Continental Army.

As a result, the framers designed the Constitution to create public virtue without requiring it as an input. It would result from competition among self-interested groups and ideas. But instead of “winner take all,” the system would force deliberation and compromise among competing factions—thereby producing a best-possible consensus given the conflicting aims.

The authors demonstrate that the Constitution itself was the result of such a competitive, give-and-take process. This process did not produce the exact result that any side wanted at the time. But more than 200 years later, we can say that it obviously worked well.

Which brings us back to where we started. The authors are concerned that the American people and their representatives are losing touch with why our system has worked so well. The people see government gridlock and assume the system is broken. But what’s broken is the way the participants are playing—or not playing—their institutional roles.

In their most recent examples, the authors blame the second Bush administration for its ambitious moves to expand executive power without congressional—and in some cases judicial—oversight. In addition, from 2001 to 2006, the Republican congressional leadership “operated as the president’s floor leaders in the Congress, rather than his separate and coequal partners in government.”

These moves led to a “winner take all” environment, which is counterproductive in two ways. If the opposition has the votes, there’s gridlock; if the majority can push legislation through without compromise (as the authors believe was the case with the second Bush administration’s Iraq policy), then checks and balances have been defeated.

To be clear, the authors do not expect politicians to ignore their party in favor of their institutional roles. But the authors make the point that the reverse has not—and should not—be the case either:

Senator Harry S. Truman investigated President Roosevelt’s administration, and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson investigated President Truman’s administration. It was a Republican Senator, Howard Baker, whose incessant questions crystallized the belief that a Republican president knew more about Watergate than he had told. And it was a Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who blocked the Democratic president and his wife from their plan to overhaul American health care.

So we find the framers did not entirely succeed in removing the need for public virtue as an input to the political process. A willingness to play one’s institutional role—especially at critical times, when that role and one’s other interests may conflict—is necessary for the Constitution’s system to work. The authors call this our Constitutional Conscience, and they want American politics to get more Constitutionally Conscientious.

For those with further interest, here is a link to the book. The first part, which I glossed over, is worth the price of admission alone. It recounts how the Constitution emerged from a historic combination of big-thinking, practical problem-solving, and shrewd politicking. The book then examines how the Constitution adapted to the massive changes and challenges that came with America’s growth. Finally, it considers the recent challenges highlighted above, which the authors feel are novel and serious.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mortenson and Relin’s Three Cups of Tea

Don’t take my word for it. On, Three Cups of Tea has 482 user reviews, 91% of which are five out of five stars. It’s one of the few books I’d recommend to anyone, no caveats.

Three Cups of Tea is the true story of an unlikely saint, an American who against all odds builds schools in Pakistan.

Here is a good summary from Publishers Weekly:

Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, [Greg] Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor [David Oliver] Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.

Just to clarify the extremes of the human spirit, and human condition, that are involved here, a few notes:

  • At the time of his K2 near-death experience, Mortenson was the mountain-climbing equivalent of a ski bum, intermittently working as an emergency room nurse to fund his next climb. When he returned to Berkeley, California, to fulfill his promise to build the Korphe school, he had no money, no contacts, and no idea what to do. To save money while raising funds, he lived in the back of a Buick.
  • Korphe is a place where central heating is a yak-dung fire in the middle of a room made from rock and mud. When Mortenson got there, it not only had no school, the nearest doctor was a week’s walk away. One out of three Korphe children died before reaching their first birthday. The basic medicines in Mortenson’s first-aid kit and his training as a nurse were like godsends—one of many examples where only a little technology and know-how could alleviate much suffering. Later, Mortenson was involved in a simple clean-water project that halved the infant-mortality rate of a 2,000-person community.
  • Even for the healthy, life in Korphe was a constant struggle amid few resources. For example, during a rare celebration in which a ram was slaughtered, “forty people tore every scrape of roasted meat from the skinny animal’s bones, then cracked open the bones themselves with rocks, stripping the marrow with their teeth.”
  • “Traveling with a party of [Korphe] men hunting to eat, rather than Westerners aiming for summits with more complicated motives, Mortenson saw this wilderness of ice with new eyes. It was no wonder the great peaks of the Himalaya had remained unconquered until the mid-twentieth century. For millenia, the people who lived closest to the mountains never considered attempting such a thing. Scratching out enough food and warmth to survive on the roof of the world took all of one’s energy.” (An interesting counterpoint to the famous phrase, “Why climb the mountain? Because it is there.”)
  • About his focus on girls’ education: “‘Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities,’ Mortenson explains. ‘But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change the culture, to empower women, to improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.’”
  • Mortenson on the War on Terror: “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won by books not bombs.

If you wish to buy Three Cups of Tea online, take an extra click and go to the Three Cups of Tea site, where you’ll see a link to buy the book at Clicking the link and then buying will get Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, up to 7% of the sale.

Monday, December 10, 2007

ExactChoice Epilogue: New CNET Recommenders

Over the past several months, CNET has been activating product recommenders in a variety of categories. Included are cell phones, digital camcorders, HDTVs, laptops, MP3 players, and printers.

Those familiar with the ExactChoice Recommender will recognize a lot of ExactChoice in these new recommenders. Indeed, the fact they exist is largely due to the success of the ExactChoice Recommender when it ran within the CNET Reviews site. That run was always seen as a precursor to the real integration, which would include more categories, tighter integration with CNET editorial, and technical integration with the CNET data platform.

These new recommenders represent the real integration—or perhaps the better word is reinvention. The new recommenders are literally a new generation of recommender after ExactChoice.

Although I kibitzed from my lair in the data side of CNET (CNET Channel), the real work was done by a team in the media side of the CNET brand. They did a great job of adapting the ExactChoice concept to CNET’s infrastructure and strengths.

In particular, the new recommenders leverage CNET’s expert editors to ask and explain the right questions. For example, note the integration of advice within the choices (especially the second one) for this question from the digital camcorders recommender.

Also, unlike the original ExactChoice Recommender, the new recommenders have an additional level of qualification for products: The results are sorted by editor’s rating, based on hands-on product reviews. So if you end up with many products that fit your needs, the editor’s rating is a useful tie-breaker. You can also sort on price, if that’s more important to you.

As an example, here is the start page for the digital camcorders recommender. The lower part of the page also has links to the other CNET recommenders.

Thanks to all those at CNET who made these new recommenders happen!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

XTC’s Go 2: “This is a Record Cover.”

I recently ran across an all-time favorite album cover, XTC’s Go 2. It’s from 1978, and although the album’s music has not stood the test of time, the cover’s consumer postmodernism (or should that be postmodern consumerism?) has.

Below is the cover image, and for your reading convenience, further below is a larger version of the text (both adapted from Wikipedia’s Go 2 page). Enjoy.

This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to pick it up. When you have done that maybe you’ll be persuaded to listen to the music - in this case XTC’s Go 2 album. Then we want you to BUY it. The idea being that the more of you that buy this record the more money Virgin Records, the manager Ian Reid and XTC themselves will make. To the aforementioned this is known as PLEASURE. A good cover DESIGN is one that attracts more buyers and gives more pleasure. This writing is trying to pull you in much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to READ IT. This is called luring the VICTIM, and you are the VICTIM. But if you have a free mind you should STOP READING NOW! because all we are attempting to do is to get you to read on. Yet this is a DOUBLE BIND because if you indeed stop you’ll be doing what we tell you, and if you read on you’ll be doing what we’ve wanted all along. And the more you read on the more you’re falling for this simple device of telling you exactly how a good commercial design works. They’re TRICKS and this is the worst TRICK of all since it’s describing the TRICK whilst trying to TRICK you, and if you’ve read this far then you’re TRICKED but you wouldn’t have known this unless you’d read this far. At least we’re telling you directly instead of seducing you with a beautiful or haunting visual that may never tell you. We’re letting you know that you ought to buy this record because in essence it’s a PRODUCT and PRODUCTS are to be consumed and you are a consumer and this is a good PRODUCT. We could have written the band’s name in special lettering so that it stood out and you’d see it before you’d read any of this writing and possibly have bought it anyway. What we are really suggesting is that you are FOOLISH to buy or not buy an album merely as a consequence of the design on its cover. This is a con because if you agree then you’ll probably like this writing - which is the cover design - and hence the album inside. But we’ve just warned you against that. The con is a con. A good cover design could be considered as one that gets you to buy the record, but that never actually happens to YOU because YOU know it’s just a design for the cover. And this is the RECORD COVER.

Again, this is not an album recommendation, unless you want to hang the cover on your wall. Go 2’s music pales in comparison to XTC classics such as Black Sea (1980), English Settlement (1982), The Big Express (1984), and Skylarking (1986). So if you want to explore the rich musical offerings of XTC (“one of the smartest—and catchiest—British pop bands to emerge from the punk and new wave explosion of the late ‘70s,” according to All Music Guide), start with those instead.