Thursday, June 26, 2008

"The Necessary Revolution": Peter Senge's book on sustainability

Authors: Peter Senge (principal), Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, Sara Schley.
Title: "The Necessary Revolution":
Subtitle:"How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World".
Publication: New York: Doubleday, 2008. ISBN 978-0-385-51901-4. 7 parts, 29 chapters, 406 pages, indexed.

Sustainability, that is becoming the new moral buzzword. It’s easy to imagine that it could become a fundamental individual moral virtue. But this book, while posing it as the issue of our time, casts the problem mainly in terms of what corporate America can do about it, and provides a somewhat optimistic spin.

Senge starts by making the case that we are coming to the end of “The Industrial Age” and will have to enter a new one (Green and Sustainable) in order to survive. Our way of life, and some of the paradigms that make up our social values, must inevitably change. Very early, he points out that our individualistic world has a lot more hidden interdependence than most people can see.

Although the book is heavily organized into a kind of functional decomposition (as systems analysts call it), Senge seems concerned mainly with three areas. One is to understand “bubble” mentality and thinking styles. A second area is how to work within a company or organization and change thinking of others from within; Senge sees this as a quiet revolution to transform “the system” from within, not a grassroots asymmetric effort by maverick bloggers. But a third area overrides everything: the basic measures and values that drive accountability (even in a fiduciary sense for public companies) must change. Senge is not that specific as to what would replace our focus on short term profits as a “measure”; it sounds like the stuff of utopian science fiction (maybe even “The 4400” where the messianic character Collier wants to do away with money altogether). Senge, like Morris, describes how capital markets, through securitization, have overtaken any sense of actual wealth (and book value), but he describes it in more psychological, rather than financial, terms.

Senge does lay out how we keep falling for the same kinds of traps in different guises: the Great Depression, the oil shocks of the 70s, the savings and loan scandals of the 80s, the dot-com bubble, the real estate subprime mess, the commodities shock now. The need for quick short-term profit and a mood of “market fundamentalism” enter the mind and drive all sense of personal virtue, even as, from a longer term perspective, basic ethical sense seems to break down. Other writers and figures – David Callahan, George Soros, and William Morris, have described the same process. Executives tend to see the environment as subordinate to “the economy” but in a real world it is the other way around. He show this and many similar concepts with venn-like diagrams throughout the book.

But Senge encourages a creative process “on the job”, working from within, to win over management (and corporate boards) to decisions that favor long term sustainability. He calls the “creative” engineer or executive who does this within the organization an “animateur”. (Think “le beau animateur” etc., and compare the word to “arbitrageur” from the 80s.) He scatters some examples around, with companies ranging from Coca Cola to British Petroleum. Oil companies would be particularly critical to this discussion, because they must reckon with a totally new model for long term profits from alternative energy courses – while at the same time there are bottom-line incentives right now (even more since the book was published) to drill in remote areas, big time.

Senge uses a lot of four-part “Nolan-type” charts to diagram his points, such as on p. 120 where he decomposes “shareholder value” into pairs of polarized opposites, running from internal to external, and from today to tomorrow. He offers a number of pages headed “toolbox” with practical tips, and also writes some sample dialogues (“screenplays”) as to how to win arguments – and converts – in board meetings. Some of what he gives is just “people skills” – the stuff of “Team Handbook” or “Total Quality Management” from the 90s.

Senge notes questions about sustainability in the growth of the Internet itself. He talks about exponential growth in electricity use, which might be addressed by local renewable sources (like wind turbines or maybe even harnessing lightning) near server farms (which helps explain why Google is building renewable energy into its own corporate planning). But Internet usage, and its tendency to attract "bad actors" because of the "free entry", also can raise sustainability questions (eventually in terms of the profitability of the business model itself, as "free" use and expectation level grows exponentially), which, amazingly enough, have remained essentially controllable by private industry (such as by security companies), even if the road is rocky and scary.

One comes back to the subject of sustainability as a personal value. In the modern individualistic world, that could imply having a personal commitment to members of future generations, like children and family. Yet, our social system has evolved into a world where short term gains mix with a lot of familial tribalism that masks as public morality. Reconciling individualism with sustainability itself makes for an interesting problem.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Morris: The Trillion Dollar Meltdown

Author: Charles R. Morris.
Title: The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.
Subtitle: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Crash.
Publication: New York: Public Affairs, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58648-563-4, 194 pages, 8 Chapters, indexed.

It isn’t hard to guess from the title what this book is about, starting with the current subprime crisis. Indeed it is, and it compares the crisis to a number of other fiascos all the way back to the 70s, such as the Arab oil embargo, the recession in the early 80s, the great 1987 “Black Monday” stock market crash, the S&L debacle, the Enron and Worldcomm debacles, and the latest mess with mortgages, credit and high oil prices. In fact, when the book went to press, the ability of municipalities to get highly-rated insurance for their bonds was coming into question.

The early part of the book traces the economic history of the last half of the previous century with some vigor. It brings back recollections, and it even recalls the spirit of my own first DADT in places. Morris discusses the economic malaise in the early part of the Nixon presidency, which accompanied the discontent over Vietnam. Nixon, almost acting like a quasi-benevolent dictator (he was not so benevolent, as we would soon learn) institute wage and price controls in 1971, and soon floated the dollar. Morris claims that the oil shocks starting in 1973 were more a result of this action than of Arab anger over Israel’s aggressive behavior. He believes that Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker to the Fed was a necessary move to reign in on the inflation of the late 1970s. But what would follow was a curious cycle of deregulation (as with Reagan) and sometimes reregulation that would lead to our current mess.

The basic genie that has refueled these crises is a financially permissive climate that allows financial “professionals” to insulate credit grantors from risk by “securitizing” the obligations with financial instruments of increasing complexity. We know the buzzwords: hedge funds, derivatives, CDO’s, and so on. Doing so with mortgages enabled issuing supersized loans (I think Morgan Spurlock would like this) to less than creditworthy homebuyers. In the later part of the book, Morris gives many details of how these instruments work and manage to hide and pass along risk. It sound’s like a kid’s game of “It.” The complexity of the financial instruments is daunting, and people (even in information technology) build whole careers around these devices, that in themselves seem no longer to create any real wealth.

Morris, with some political ambiguity, draws some parallels to the moral questions regarding the increase in the divide between the rich and poor. Education has performed variably in increasing income earning potential, but in more recent years, the “educated” class has sometimes been able to insulate itself from the personal risks that working people take. I can see how one could extend this kind of thinking to arguments about marriage. Some people go through life without taking the personal emotional risks of commitment in conventional marriage and parenting, and that introduces certain imbalances. There is even a further twist to this line of thinking: sometimes people, when they have "families to support," believe they have a license to hide themselves from the implications of what they have to do to make a living -- for others.

At the end, Morris says that we need to bite the bullet and accept the need for more regulation, particularly of activities that are “off the books” of exchanges and that create risks not apparent to credit granters. He offers some suggestions for reforming health care financing, including scraping the employer based system.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

MIT Press offers book on global Internet filtering: "Access Denied"

Editors: Jonathan Zittrain, Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski.
Title: Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering.
Publication: Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-262-04245-1. 449 pages, paper. 6 Chapters, with regional overviews and country summaries.

This is an important professional and technical book on Internet filtering and government control, overseas and in the United States. It is reference-like with bibliographic notes at the end of each section and many editors and contributors. It’s useful to begin by listing the individual essays and authors.

Chapter 1: Robert Faris and Nart Villeneuve, “Measuring Global Internet Filtering”
Chapter 2; Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey, “Internet Filtering: The Politics and Mechanisms of Control”
Chapter 3: Steven J. Murdoch and Ross Anderson “Tools and Technology of Internet Filtering”
Chapter 4: Mary Rundle and Malcolm Birdling, “Filtering and the International System: A Question of Commitment”
Chapter 5: Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey: “Reluctant Gatekeepers: Corporate Ethics on a Filtered Internet”
Chapter 6: Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski: “Good for Liberty, Bad for Security? Global Civil Society and the Securitizaion of the Internet

These chapters are followed by regional and country-specific overviews.

The essays present a wide range of motives for filtering and censorship, and a wide range of techniques for doing so. Often, specific domain names or IP addresses are blacklisted because of the presence of objectionable content. Users may be tracked and monitored and sometimes pursued. Speakers and bloggers may be arrested and imprisoned. Blogs, as compared to conventional sites, get additional attention because of the ease with which they are published, indexed and self-syndicated.

The motives for censorship vary. China is well known for suppressing criticism and political dissent. Muslim countries are well known for objection to criticism or Islam (or various misrepresentations of Mohammed) and for “sexual immorality.” Some countries like Singapore profess sensitivity to “public morality.”

Many interesting observations come up, particularly with respect to blogging. In a few countries, Blogger and perhaps some similar services are blocked altogether. In others, bloggers often self-censor or must agree to stay within certain topics. Moderators and service providers sometimes take down “gray area” content because of fear of blockage. In the United States, DMCA “safe harbor” takedowns occur when there is no real copyright infringement. The law even in western countries has gradually migrated toward forcing private telecommunications companies to participate in the filtering process, with less than perfect results.

I have always asked myself a rhetorical question: what are these governments afraid of? Isn’t censorship an admission of illegitimacy? Yet, many of the cultures have carefully “rationalized” systems describing the proper “moral” relationship between the individual, his religion (sometimes) or society. States tend to believe that strict control of individuals guarantee stability and that everyone is taken care of to a certain standard required by their particular social or religious cultures, often in the context of the family. In their view, allowing individuals to transcend these rules with personal dissent causes others to be abandoned, and in some sense that may be true.

There is another aspect of the “free entry” mechanism of the Western Internet, with the user-generated content, that some persons may find this opportunity provides a convenient way avoid unwanted real-world relations with other people. This concern has surfaced in the discussion of the “dangers” of social networking sites. Governments may sometimes believe that excessive “freedom” undermines real world connections that they think are necessary for stability, or governments may try to abuse this kind of idea. . Freedom sometimes does mean accepting imperfection and the possibility of instability.

The last chapter does discuss the various paradigms for the relation of the new modes of instantaneous global broadcast. These range from “global civic networks” to the “dark net,” the later of which includes various scams, “cheats” (like spam), and recruiting into radical activities (whether radical Islam or perhaps other forms of extremism) which seem to appeal to young men and others who don’t feel strong personal connections to others. The use of the Web for radical recruiting does express certain internal contradictions which governments can also use to clamp down on it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Review: Greenhaven's "Should Social Networking Sites Be Banned?"

Editor: Roman Espejo.
Ttitle: Should Social Networking Sites Be Banned?.
Contents: The book comprises 18 short essays by different contributors.
Publication: 2008, Greenhaven / Gale Cengage, Detroit; ISBN 978-0-7377-4059-2. 106 pages, paperback, indexed; this book is from the “At Issue: Mass Media” and “Opposing Viewpoints” Series.

This booklet comes from a series established by a Michigan publisher to present various controversial issues or “debate resolutions” from many perspectives, often organized in chapters with different authors taking pro and con positions on some particular “sub-issue” of the larger set of questions.

The title of the book is a tad misleading. Nowhere does anyone seriously propose that government should outlaw social networking sites. The first chapter, by Rep. Michael G. FitzPatrick (R-PA), does defend the practice of schools’ blocking Internet access to social network sites on school property, and his bill (DOPA) would deny federal funding to schools and public libraries that allow such access. The security problems from these sites are well known. They result from those individuals who have “not the best intentions” when accessing information posted by minors. That in itself is not really controversial and doesn’t get a lot of space. In fact, Chapter 8 by Julia Angwin and Brian Steinberg (“MySpace Takes Measures to Safeguard Minors”) discusses the freewheeling business model for Fox (News Corporation) when it took over MySpace in 2005, as an example of free enterprise that makes money legitimately when used by adults as originally intended but that tends to attract “bad actors.” In fact, Chapter 4, by Domenick Maglio argues “MySpace and Other Social Networking Web Sites Are Dangerous for Children” and writes bluntly “In our fragmented existence, children have little responsibility in helping the family and too much idle time on their hands to create a fantasy existence.” In Chapter 7, in an article from Information Week on C.P. discusses “Second Life” and there is a general concern that the “no capital required” fame possible on the Web can become a problem for adults as well as minors.

What is of greatest concern, and taken up my several contributors, is the potential problems for schools, employers, and even the Armed Forces when various individuals (including students, teachers, employees, soldiers) post potentially compromising or confounding information about themselves and others from home, even using off-campus or off-work resources that they as individuals “own”.

In Chapter 9, the South Carolina law firm Duff, White & Turner, LLC argues “Schools Should Punish Students for Misuse of Social Networking Sites” and argues that school districts should discipline students whose off-campus Internet activity is likely to cause disruption or security problems at school. The firm also discusses the South Carolina “Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act.” The statute has common language allowing dismissal for immoral conduct or behavior that disregards school district regulations. The law firm interprets this code as allowing for firing of teachers for off-campus behavior that “results in a school disruption” or “otherwise negative impacts on the employee’s credibility,” and the law firm believes that school districts should write specific personnel policies expressing this concept. [This chapter appears to be a reprint of an Education Law Publications from 2006 issued by the firm; please refer to the "Major Issues" blog (as on my Blogger Profle) for all the links, in the posting from June 9, 2008.] One problem is that school districts need to give some specific examples as to how they would interpret “gray area” material. Administrators worry that parents or kids may interpret ambiguous material in different ways than urbanized young adults with other outside interests, and may believe it is intended to be enticing even when it is not. This concern goes way beyond the usual concerns about pornography and “adult material” as recently litigated with COPA.

There are chapters on the military (by Erika Morphy and Todd Garvin), but the precept that the military has legitimate security reasons to regulate Internet activity of its soldiers (on and off duty) certainly holds water, even though blogging from combat zones like Iraq is valuable. What, for me at least, is a different issue is the federal law that effectively tries to keep certain kinds of people (gays) out of the military, which goes way beyond speech issues, although obviously social networking and Internet speech can invoke the current statutory law “don’t ask don’t tell.”

The book has articles from the Christian Science Monitor and by Alexandra Marks arguing that social networking sites (and personal blogs) are a boon to direct democracy and the political process, that they encourage political involvement, and promote philanthropy. All of that is true and valid, in the best libertarian sense. The last chapter of the book, by Gloria Goodale, discusses mobile social networking (MoSoSo) which does get students out of their apartments and dorm rooms back into real interaction with others!

But the most controversial part of the book may be Chapter 17, by Larry Edelstein, “Employers Are Monitoring Social Networking Sites.” This has been widely reported since about the end of 2005, and there are many ethical problems. Sometimes employers may identify the wrong person, or be influenced by unsubstantiated material posted by others, part of the “online reputation defense” problem. The article points out that sometimes people have been denied jobs not for self-derogatory material (underage drinking images and the like) but for candor that reveals their true intentions. One person did not get an entry level sales job with a media company because his profile said that he aspired to become an actor. I thought, aren’t the skills in acting and in sales related? This just sounds plain dumb on the employer’s part. Of course, the employer wants someone who will remain loyalty to their values and stay and build a career perhaps – but in today’s uncertain economy that’s a two-way street. The candor of material self-published on the web certainly does call into patterns the social patterns that businesses used to depend on to make personal sales, and that ought to provide a necessary lesson for business. The book even reports advice that people in some jobs should not have social networking pages or personal websites at all outside of what would come with the job (the businesses mentioned here included “investment banks, capital funds, and consultant firms.”) I have even written that there are serious ethical issues for employees who are paid to speak publicly for someone else’s interests (that would include trial lawyers), or who get paid to make discretionary or underwriting decisions about other stakeholders.

There are a couple of morals to all this. One is that Human Resources departments, like school districts, need to come up with clearer and more detailed guidelines concerning off campus web speech – since it becomes so very public, especially when search engines can find it. They also need to come clean about what their procedures for “background investigations” will be and how they even know they have identified the applicant or employee properly on the Web. The other is especially relevant to high school and college students. Emerging adults need to think hard about the careers they really want to “compete” in and behave appropriately throughout their school years. That includes not only activities and visible speech, but also preparing themselves properly for careers that reflect their personal values and that don’t lead to “conflict of interest.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Elshtain: "Sovereignty: God, State, and Self": a critique of libertarian notions of personal autonomy

Author: Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Title: Sovereignty: God, State and Self.
Publication: New York: Basic Books, 2008. 334 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-465-63759-9.

I preface this review with a brief anecdote in my own past. In 1969, when I was stationed at Fort Eustis in a safe Army “desk job” and sheltered away from Vietnam despite the draft, I was required to requalify on the rifle range. Unless the sheltered and well-structured experience in Basic, the event had been carelessly handled, with a lot more noise. I remember going a dinner off post that evening and hearing my right ear ring with every bite. As an previously aspiring musician and classical music aficionado, I resented one of my most important senses being permanently damaged for no good utilitarian reason than “shared sacrifice.” Now, I precede to the book.

Dr. Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. (Off hand, I’m surprised that the book doesn’t come from the University of Chicago Press.) The title suggests the progress of the arguments in the book. It starts out as if it were to be a supplementary text for a college undergraduate philosophy course, but gradually transforms into a tastefully (if with a little bit of overstatement) worded argument about the ethical and moral problems – from a secular as well as religious perspective – of how we shoot for our marks in promoting individual liberty.

The word “sovereign” in the dictionary imparts two major concepts. One is “power” to rule over others. The second, which is much more relevant to self-sovereignty, is independence of others. And the latter is what has become so double-edged, right under our noses in such a way that politicians don’t know how to discuss it. In her book, the two basic meanings tend to morph together.

She does trace the history of the concept, starting with religion and then in the nation state (even mentioning the 1648 Westphalia Treaty that helped establish the concept of national "Westphalian sovereignty" -- territorial integrity [like that of a mockingbird, perhaps] and the exclusion of external parties from internal domestic affairs). The development of the modern system of “sovereign states” from consolidations of various feudal holdings was seen as a progressive development in the middle of the last millennium; all undergraduate students of European history learn that (although in other cultures around the world the process is even more complicated and uncertain, and ancient history mixes the concept of “empire” and small nation-state or city-state). We’ve all heard about the supposed “divine right of kings” and the progressive or protestant challenges from Luther, Calvin, and many others. The author discusses in detail the contributions to the concepts of sovereignty, from religious, political to personal, from all major European and American philosophers through several centuries, and pays particular attention to interpreting and contrasting the American and French revolutions.

It’s when she gets to personal sovereignty, though, that her book really gets interesting. I really do hope that history and philosophy professors, and even high school AP history teachers assign this book and get students to write about the issues she takes up. I present some thoughts here with some personal perspective, and I expect other students would be able to add theirs.

She distinguishes between two kinds of self-sovereignty, “hard” (which is the kind that libertarians, classical liberals, CATO forums, GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty), and the like talk about, and “soft” which is a mixture of New Age and leftist to liberal communal values which tries to extend individualism into the communal sphere without demanding the emotional commitments of conventional family life. But the “hard” kind of self-sovereignty (or what we often call “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy”) tends to pull away from the usual political arguments that pit interest groups (social classes, races, religious or national groups, labor unions, occupational guilds, etc) against one another (and tempt politicians to lean on special interest, to the disdain particularly of libertarian-style conservatives) and tend to try to separate “sovereign” adults from having to take care of the “less sovereign” or less competitive or capable individuals. She notes a certain end-point contradiction in the way we go about securing individual rights, especially for women: we want to support choice and reproductive freedom, but often to avoid bringing children into the world who will have lifelong extra needs; at the same time, in somewhat quixotic fashion, we cover this up with aggressive and usually well-intended public policy to provide opportunities for the disabled. (She goes into a lot of detail over the debates on cloning and stem cells, as well as abortion.) On one level, this seems fair enough to the progressive; many previously disabled people become independent and “sovereign” themselves with the help provided by policies like the ADA. But, as she points out, some people can never become “sovereign.”

My take on all this is that sharing “burdens” or risks used to be part of our moral thinking, and in decades past, the methods of risk-sharing were related to gender roles and eventually to marriage. I grew up in a world that was willing to conscript men and expect them to lay down their lives for women and children. As an “outlier” myself, I was more interested in developing my own skills and expressions (music, writings, etc) and then seeking out personal relationships very specialized to what I “needed”. Furthermore, since I was not “competitive” as a potential male “protector” in the conventional social sense, I tended to look up to young men who were (sometimes with various visual cues). Psychologists call this process “upward affiliation.” The morality of such a life setup was controversial but it became more acceptable, particularly in the past twenty or so years, as libertarian thinking (centered on “harmlessness” and self-sovereignty) took hold (it tended to start during the Reagan years, which sounds like a bit of a paradox, but makes sense now). The author points out that wild animals don’t meet our notion of sovereignty, but nevertheless we develop particular affection to certain well evolved animals (like dolphins or big cats) that seem to demonstrate our own fantasy of freedom. We don’t always share the same affection for human beings who demonstrate long-standing needs that require sacrifice from others (from the “more sovereign) in order to live at all.

The author does point out in some carefully written passages the possible end result of this kind of freedom. The events in Germany in the 1930s (as well as the Holocaust that they led to) can prove that point—although some of “dreamer” Hitler’s ideas (“folkishness”) really were collective in nature. One is taken back to the moral thinking in the 50s and early 60s, where it seemed important that everyone learn to do his or her part in sharing burdens. That justified the draft in the past, and underscores calls for national service today. You could call such a philosophy “pay your dues.” That sort of ethical system calculates everything in terms of personal “karma” as if it were a mathematical personal account. It’s important that responsibility for others goes beyond the obvious obligations that come from having a child, which is supposed to be a behavioral choice. We are born into obligations because parents raise us. She mentions the religious way of looking at this: “original sin.” She also observes that rigid moralistic beliefs sometimes arise out of "free thought" as people try to rationalize misfortune and avoid emotion.

And it’s the religious concept that sort of exposes the tender ankle, the Achilles heel of self-sovereignty even when evaluated by “karma.” She comes up with a “kinder, gentler” idea of sovereignty, one that intrinsically accepts the need for socialization, especially through the family unit and the community around it. She makes a distinction (p. 229) between persons (which are social) and individuals. Persons do not expect to get their own way even as adults in determining the courses of their lives. They accept the fact that whatever they accomplish has limits that sometimes transcend their span of control (or “personal responsibility”) and may be modified by the needs of others (sometimes even the permanently “less sovereign”) around them, even beyond the obvious requirement to provide for their own children (she makes that point earlier by referring to the book and film “Children of Men” which imagines a world with no more children). "Real people" have to surrender sovereignty all the time, it seems, to meet the needs of others as they arise beyond their own scope of choice.

Her book could be taken as an attack on, or at least constructive criticism of, introversion (mine) – which, as I’ve discussed in other book reviews here (Paul Rosenfels in April 2006 and even George Gilder’s “Men and Marriage” (1986) on the same archive). That is, someone like me, very determined to defined and follow his own purposes before committing to personal relationships like marriage (straight or gay) should become more receptive to and empathetic with other people in a community (last review, of Kielburger’s book) , even on terms other than my own. And, yes, “sacrifice” (as in the beginning of the review where I mention the hearing loss from the rifle range) happens in a real world. A “person” (rather than “individual”) more “connected” to others (whether kin or community) may not perceive this as a “sacrifice.” My own father used to say, “to obey is better than to sacrifice.” Indeed, the fracturing not so much of the existence of family ties as the willingness of modern culture to maintain their meaning does create a world in which some kinds of people don't do well (and someone like me may, if left alone, be OK). I think these sorts of moral arguments track to what commentators like Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse have be trying to make to counter proposals for gay marriage, but few people seem to get this. (The book author never specifically mentions gay issues, but it is all to easy to imagine how the existential discussion would go.) Perhaps, they say, some emphasis on social personhood is necessary to prevent some of the tragedies of history from ambushing us.