Friday, November 25, 2011

How do we get off the Tiger to Save our Future

The old saying ''He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.''  has been in my mind a lot lately. Each time is see the economic news the same model is trotted out over and over.  To get jobs we have to have economic growth. To have growth we have to consume more.  This seems like a prescription for how to go to hell more quickly.  We are consuming our children's future as we ramp up consumption today and exploit resources they will need tomorrow.  What are the ways to get off the consumption creates demand for stuff.... which creates demand for jobs..... which can create more stuff ...... What are the possibilities for community in thinking about ways to take a different path?  Will leaders help us learn together to see new ways?

I wanted to get this thread started as we combine our economic anxiety with the great spending and consumption binge that is the economy of the Christmas season.  What do you think?

Some background:
From Yahoo Answers

''Ch'i 'hu nan hsia pei'' is the original Chinese proverb, translated as ''He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.'' A rough interpretation of the proverb would be ''Once a dangerous or troublesome venture is begun, the safest course is to carry it through to the end'' .  Or in plain speak, it is easy to get on the Tiger but very difficult to get off without incurring danger to oneself.

For some comparison on United States spending and saving see

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Experience and Wisdom in a New Idea World

A week learning about an ancient culture in the presence of elders makes me wonder about how we balance wisdom and new ideas. Strong communities need both.

A couple of weeks ago we saw a new report from the Congressional Budget Office about the widening inequality in income. (CBO Trends in the Distribution of Household Income between 1979 and 2007 October 2011In the CBO study the highest one percent of income earners who made their living in the financial community did very well. Those whose income share rose were those who could deal in abstractions and intangibles. CBO did not study specifics but examples would include money, futures contracts, options, stocks, bonds, bundled mortgages, and other so called derivatives. The abstractions also include work described as  management, advertising, marketing, promotion etc.  We are so used to these abstractions in our daily world that we think of them as "real" things.  When the financial trader says he (its usually he) worked for his high income he means he put in a lot of hours of mental anguish in trading abstractions or intangibles. The identity of these abstractions is wholly created and maintained by our cultural rules. Money for example is an idea sustained by cultural convention and official rules. Money is only "real" in the same way that reality TV shows us "real" lives. 

The CBO income inequality report was released while I was visiting the island of Molokai in the Hawaiian Island chain. I was there as a part of a Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) study group (see  This was a fascinating group of people who ranged in age from 50's to at least 80's. Their life paths were rich with experiences across a broad array of life activities. We joked with each other in ways that illustrated our age and ignorance about a variety of current technologies and ideas of the young. My fellow students were largely "retired" from a broad array of occupations and professions.
As the week went along I gained higher and higher respect for my fellow students, our lead coordinator and our speakers. My understanding of what they had experienced in work and family life grew. I learned something about their children, their friends,and much about their travels. When I suggested to one of my fellow students (in her 80's) that I wanted to go to Cuba she said. "I went to Cuba before Castro."  I believe she said it was 1948.

I also learned about the history of those who created the economy and culture of Molokai. For example the early Molokai Hawaiians constructed fish ponds at fresh water outlets near the ocean so that the water would be a mixture of fresh and sea water. These ponds were managed to support their favored fish species. This required them to understand the interaction of the fresh water aquifer and the sea water aquifer. The teacher who told us about this said that it was "pretty amazing" that the natives could know how to do this. This is "amazing" to us because we live in a culture where the design and construction of these fish ponds would depend on the creation of many abstract ideas. We depend on the scientific method to develop explanations and test them. We are surprised that primitive peoples could use reflective observation, experiment and logical reasoning to do complex things.

My fellow elder "hostiles" and I learned some Hawaiian words including Kapuna or elder (I kept hearing this as Kahuna the Hawaiian word for Expert). My subsequent research brought me to the following ideas (via  First, a kupuna is an honored elder who has acquired enough life experience to become a family and community leader. The term has been stated to be the embodiment of natural respect… a practitioner of aloha (love), pono (righteousness), malama (caring), and spirituality.1  In ancient times, they were teachers and caretakers of grandchildren and that bond was especially strong. Even today, the kupuna is expected to speak out and help make decisions on important issues for both the family and the community. 
Kupuna also means ancestor and includes the many generations before us who by their spiritual wisdom and presence guide us through personal, familial or community difficulties. We look to our kupuna to help us find and fulfill our pathways through life. Included among our kupuna are the family guardian spirits or ‘aumakua who take physical shape, in the form of a honu (turtle) or a pueo (owl) and come to visit, warn and communicate with us. 
Finally, kupuna means the source, the starting point or the process of growth. This meaning is related to the notion that our direct fore bearers and those of the distant past remain living treasures who continue to help us grow in numerous ways.  They are a source of experience, knowledge, guidance, strength and inspiration to the next generations. 

The growth and complexity of an economy based on intangibles changes the power balance between experience and intellectual thinking capacity. For example, before the intangible economy a farmer determined the value of his production as for his own use or in trade with his neighbor. The in developing economies the merchant rises initially as an intermediary trader of real goods and services. Later financial merchants become the traders of intangible goods and services.

Much of the outcry about the savings and loan crisis, the Enron scandal, the high tech bubble, the trade in financial derivatives and the trade in mortgage backed securities is rooted in the suspicion of "value" based in symbols. Those who also lost millions in these financial scandals frequently did not understand the abstract knowledge used by the "symbol manipulator's", to use economist Robert Reich term. (see his book "the Work of Nations) Those injured as financial wizards grew rich were outraged when the financial bubble they created burst. They were even more outraged when the wizards passed the cost of their errors to all of us including those who were prudent based on established principles of thrift and trust.

In traditional societies or perhaps the modern pejorative, primitive societies those with rich life experience often coded into "tradition" are highly valued and respected. Their long life is presumed to have taught them much. In a "modern" complex society abstract knowledge/academic knowledge is essential to the creation of value as driven by new ideas. The capacity to understand and produce in modern complex societies is most commonly achieved by learning both in classrooms and individually.  The idea of apprenticeship, learning from a craftsman, is often completely absent in the business world today. The winners are those who can create new abstractions and convert them into money.

I suspect that someone who leads for community needs to have a clear appreciation of the traditions embodied in community elders and the ideas of the new comers and the young.  The combination of tradition and new ideas is a complex and challenging dimension of leadership.  Earnest Cortes, an experienced community organizer said that the key was to embrace tradition, the living ideas of the dead and avoid traditionalism, the dead ideas of the living. (for more see

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve Jobs success was built on the contributions of many. ?

The Wisconsin State Journal Editorial page on October 8, 2011, included a letter under the headline "Jobs an Entrepreneur who earned his wealth"). He recognizes that Steve Jobs was incredibly creative. He notes the hard work and genius Jobs brought to his life. He says that Jobs effort benefited all of us and made him rich. He also states that "there is no evidence that big government gave him any help or encouragement". The writer asserts there are thousands of creative hard working folks in the world like Steve Jobs. He concludes "Once successful, they are deservedly wealthy. They are not the evil, selfish economic empire described by the left".

I am unashamedly on the left and I believe that creativity and hard work deserve reward. I also believe that the wealth which Steve Jobs earned was not earned by his efforts alone. I do not believe that we should use his death as an occasion to assert  our cultural myth of individual talent as the sole source of wealth. I also doubt any assertion that "there is no evidence that big government gave him (Jobs) any help or encouragement".

 A quick look on Google reveals that Jobs grew up in Cupertino, CA. In the year of his birth, 1955 voters approved the incorporation of the City of Cupertino. Cupertino officially became Santa Clara County's 13th City. This was after the dramatic post World War II demographic and economic change which was challenging the area. Cupertino eventually became the home of Apple Computer and the heart of "Silicon Valley".

Nathan Newman explored the development of Silicon Valley in his book Net Loss: Internet Prophets, Private Profits, and the Costs to Community. He wrote

At the most obvious level, government spending was the engine of economic and technological growth in the region, from federal contracts that built the intercontinental railroad to defense contracts that spawned the first wave of electronics companies during and after World War II to the spending on the Internet funneled through key Bay Area institutions like Stanford, UC-Berkeley and Xerox PARC. For decades in Silicon Valley, winning a defense contract was almost the only reason a startup company had a chance to enter technology markets against already established firms...... It was a synergy between federal government and local actors, aided by periodic infusions of federal cash, that slowly evolved the interconnected cooperative model of technological development that became Silicon Valley's hallmark.

Steve Jobs and other creative people become wealthy in the United States for a variety of reasons. At least since World War II those who achieved economic success owe much to those who were workers, consumers and citizens. Each of these groups contributed to our country's and our individual success's. Wealth was built in and with communities, large and small, who provided roads, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, schools, and libraries. The local, state and federal governments which we created provided legal and economic institutions essential for enterprise to flourish and create wealth. Certainly during and since World War II we have used government as a partner in economic development. At times that partnership is obvious in the individual wealth of the citizens who benefit. When an extraordinarily talented and driven person such as Steve Jobs, dies it is easy to forget all those who helped him including our government .

See -- Net Loss: Internet Prophets, Private Profits, and the Costs to Community [Paperback]
Nathan Newman (Author), Penn State University Press, 2002

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Rod Nilsestuen's Legacy as a Learning Leader

Rod Nilsestuen, a hard working and respected Wisconsin citizen, died this week. Much has been written about his humanity and his contributions to his state and community. I believe that Rod Nilsestuen was a life long learner. He was curious and willing to ask questions without fear that he would be thought stupid. Rod often poked fun at his Norwegian heritage and its supposed limits on intellectual capacity. Perhaps this was his way of opening the opportunity to ask the "stupid" question and learn more about the subject. I think Rod understood that a genuine humility about what we know and what we have yet to learn is a key capacity of leadership. I believe that Rod's humanity and leadership that was celebrated throughout his life was an appreciative response to our knowing he was learning all the time. Not only learning but willing to grant the role of teacher to nearly everyone he encountered

We will miss Rod Nilsestuen in many ways. I will miss him most as a leader who was willing to say "I don't know, tell me what you know about that". The capacity to say I don't know seems in very short supply these days. That shortage is made greater by limiting those we acknowledge as having something to teach us. I hope many of us can honor Rod by encouraging leaders to show us they know they don't always know and they are excited to get to work learning from anyone who can help them understand the complex world around us.