Charting the Debt

The New York Times has a nice set of infographics charting the history of the U.S. debt crisis. Of the $14.3 trillion debt, all but $1 trillion has been accumulated during the Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama presidencies. Democratic presidents were in office during $3.8 trillion of deficit accumulation, compared to $9.5 trillion of deficit accumulation during republican presidencies.

Persons, But Not Personal

In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled upheld the view that corporations are persons.

In its AT&T ruling, it declared unanimously that corporations have no personal privacy rights for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., seems not to have noticed the deep antagonism between these two positions.

In short, corporations are persons, but they cannot take things personally. But then, what kind of person does that make them?

Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity

Recently, the OMT Blog has invited several organization theory scholars to contribute their thoughts related to the theme of the organization of political campaigns and campaign finance. This week, Ed Walker commented on research opportunities in the post-Citizens United era.

In that spirit, tonight as I was driving my kids home from an after school appointment, I caught a segment on National Public Radio (NPR) about the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity. According to NPR:

“They’ve probably run some of the more entertaining ads this cycle,” says Evan Tracey, who tracks political ads for a living at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. “They don’t look like a lot of the ads that are being shown over and over and over, by candidates and the parties and the other groups in a lot of these races.”

Although many of the ads being run by the Commission sound like political ads, according to a copy of the group’s official Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filing obtained by NPR, when asked by the IRS if the organization planned “to spend any money to influence elections. It answered no.” Despite the group’s claims however:

“There’s not a whole lot of gray area as to whether these are about issues,” Tracey says. “They’re strictly about politics and elections.”

NPR also reports that the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity appears to be skirting the reporting rules established by the Federal Election Commission as well as the Federal Communications Commission.

At the NPR website there is also an elaborate interactive network map which traces some of the people, money, organizations, and network ties involved.

Solving Social Security

In Monday’s New York Times, economist Paul Krugman had an interesting piece — “Attacking Social Security” — in which he defended Social Security, even as it has come under attack by both Republicans and Democrats. His first argument is that the “claims of crisis” are the result of “bad-faith accounting.”

“In particular, they rely on an exercise in three-card monte in which the surpluses Social Security has been running for a quarter-century don’t count — because hey, the program doesn’t have any independent existence; it’s just part of the general federal budget — while future Social Security deficits are unacceptable — because hey, the program has to stand on its own.”

His second point is that raising the retirement age to 70 (It’s already gone from 65 to 66 and is scheduled to rise to 67) might make sense for white collar workers (“the people who need Social Security the least”), but for the rest of America, the prospects of manual labor until age 70 may be a matter of life and death. Moreover, although “life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot at the top of the income distribution,” lower-income workers have not seen the same rise. In other words, the changes being proposed to Social Security are likely to eliminate benefits for those who need them the most.

Capitalism, Socialism and Oil Rigs

So much to blog about lately, especially as it relates to the BP oil spill. One piece that caught my attention was a column in the Washington Post which used the oil spill to illustrate that the debate over capitalism vs. socialism is a false dichotomy. (see: Gulf Oil Spill Offers Lesson in Capitalism vs. Socialism)

For instance, Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, normally an outspoken critic of government intervention, lately has been complaining he’s not getting enough support — “resources” in his terminology — from Washington. It seems in this case more government, not less is what’s needed.

At the same time, frustrations over BP’s inability to stop the flow of the oil led to a series of stories about the prospects of the government “firing” BP. However, talk of such a plan seems to have been largely silenced after Admiral Thad Allen observed “To push BP out of the way, it would raise a question: Replace them with what?” In other words, the government needs private industry too. In this case, without BP the prospects of stopping the flow of oil becomes even more bleak.

And so, we have a bizarre triangle. Local citizens need the government to save them from BP. The government needs BP to help them. Thus, BP is both the cause of the problem, and one hopes, part of the solution.  In other words, in the gulf we find that even a government-industry hybrid is incapable of either containing or stopping the spill. One lesson: suggestions that what the world needs is less government or less industry is to suggest that in the future we would be even less capable of responding to crises and disasters such as the spill. Of course the second lesson is largely an echo of the financial crisis. Regulation matters. And clearly different regulatory regimes are likely to result.

But in which direction should we go? Stepping back, what the BP oil spill seems to suggest is that the acid test for regulatory reform is not whether it strengthens government at the cost of industry or vice versa, but what is the effect on the entire hybrid and its configuration. Good legislation is not legislation that punishes business or rewards it, or strengthens government or weakens it. Good legislation requires reconfiguring the institutional arrangements in such a way that will strengthen the entire government-industry hybrid network. To merely trade off or shift between either government or industry as having the upper hand is to miss the point. Like the financial crisis, the BP oil spill suggests that what is needed is greater hybrid strength, resilience and coordination, not less. This is one more place where a sum zero game means we all lose, no matter which side wins.

PowerPoint and the Military

A few weeks ago I blogged about several people who see PowerPoint as a barrier to understanding. Today, my eye was drawn to a New York Times headline proclaiming: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”

In remarks that appear to be channeling Edward Tufte, General McChrystal has called PowerPoint “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Others in the military agree.  According to the article, this month at a military conference in North Carolina, Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said  “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” (He spoke without PowerPoint.) At the same conference, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

Again, consistent with Tufte’s arguments, the article reports: “Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.”

Having just spent two days at an academic conference where every session — including the one I gave — featured a PowerPoint presentation, I wonder if anyone has considered its effects on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge…

Better Mailboxes

It’s not quite a better mousetrap, but here’s a great story from yesterday’s New York Times on “Building a Better Mailbox.”

It’s a wonderful example of the dead ends and false starts endemic to innovation journeys. Capitalizing on the failure of the “Elephant Trunk” mailbox, the founders of Architectural Mailboxes (Vanessa Troyer and Chris Farentinos) landed on their winning idea: the Oasis and the Oasis Jr.

Some clever personal marketing to Rhys Jones at The Home Depot and a “birthday gift” to Jeff Bezos at didn’t hurt either.

Too Much Transparency?

In a recent New York Times column on “The Power Elite,” David Brooks argues:

As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

He then offers five contributing factors. Here I want to zero in on his fifth factor: transparency.

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it.

Lately, I too have been contemplating the affordances and the advantages, as well as the limitations and the liabilities of transparency. While I agree that transparency can devolve into a panopticon (to borrow Foucault’s insight), it is not without its virtues. Thus, my only conclusion so far is that transparency must been seen as a complex and multifaceted concept. As such, singular characterizations of transparency as either on the side of angels or demons strike me as too simplistic.

Perhaps the explanation for why people are less inclined to trust the government is much simpler: having pulled back the curtain, they do not like what they see.

Unanimous Consent

In Sunday’s New York Times economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman argued that although “America Is Not Yet Lost… the Senate is working on it.”

His commentary focused on the Senate’s tradition of relying on “unanimous consent.” In one telling vignette Krugman writes:

Last week, after nine months, the Senate finally approved Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration, which runs government buildings and purchases supplies. It’s an essentially nonpolitical position, and nobody questioned Ms. Johnson’s qualifications: she was approved by a vote of 94 to 2. But Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, had put a “hold” on her appointment to pressure the government into approving a building project in Kansas City.

In other words, the Senate is now “paralyzed by procedure.” As a result, “Rules that used to be workable have become crippling now that one of the nation’s major political parties has descended into nihilism, seeing no harm — in fact, political dividends — in making the nation ungovernable.”