Monday, March 16, 2015

Shadow Puppets and Marionettes

One hundred years ago today, J.R. Hulse of Greely Colorado and E.B. Rogers found themselves in Sheriff's custody for passing bogus checks in Denver Colorado.  They had carefully lithographed checks from one Imperial Tire Company (a fictitious business) drawn against the First National Bank of Oakland and, having succeeded in their scam twice, were finally brought to justice.  At the same time (albeit hidden until the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry chaired by North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye in 1934) U.S. banks were funneling money to both sides of the European warring foes in World War I.  Democratic Appropriations Committee Chairman Carter Glass from Virginia was infuriated in what he referred to as Nye's defiling "the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson" by suggesting that U.S. banking interests in 1915 may have been profiteering from the war and exercising undue influence on the President to enter the conflict.  The facts presented in hearings showed that the U.S. entered the War as much for profit as for ideology.

In the March 16, 2015 Financial Times, two articles featured the U.S. and European apprehension regarding banking in China.  One of their greatest concerns at present is the recommendation from Chinese regulators that IT security systems for banking transactions be research, developed and deployed in China.  The handwringing over the fear that Chinese participation in IT security equates to inviting surveillance and intrusion into the transparent Western banking system is great theater but masks the occult supervision that has persisted since the Bretton Woods accords.

A recent report by Goldman Sachs reported a vertiginous expansion of "shadow banking" in the U.S.  The report written by Ryan M. Nash and Eric Beardsley suggested that this financial intermediation function could divert $11 billion in profits away from traditional lenders over the next 5 years.  Competing with traditional banks through decreased regulatory and compliance costs, lower interest rates, and more precise offerings which can be highly mutagenic based on customer segmentation, these institutions and service providers are changing the face of banking 100 years after the current system was coronated. 

Late into the evening on Friday of this past week, I entertained two gentlemen who were proposing a social gaming platform on which players could educate themselves on how banking and the money supply work.  During our conversation, the very essence of fractional reserve banking was elucidated only to open a hemorrhage of inquisitive probings into why the current system doesn't seem to be working.  Apropos to that conversation, the weekend media was awash with handicapping Janet Yellen's decisions at this week's FOMC meeting.  Unemployment is manipulated to an appropriate level.  Consumer spending is down.  The dollar is charging like a mad bull at Pamplona.  And investors are "pressure testing" bond portfolios for the ominous sell-off that's either one or two fiscal quarters away.  No worries, there's only $1 trillion of pension value at stake.  Looks like that vacation in Florida might just have to wait for another lifetime!

So here's a question.  Why do we call a financial intermediation system in which transacting parties know details about each other, have transparent terms, and exchange actual value a "shadow" system implying that the current system operates in the "light"?  One could suggest that PIMCO's Paul McCulley's 2007 derogatory label to transactions outside the regulated commercial banking market was intended for dramatic effect but that it further obscured the commercial banking opacity in the public arena.  In their well researched article in The Regional Economist in October 2011, Bryan Noeth and Rajdeep Sengupta describe the role of the regulated bank as the agency of maturity transformation (analogous to my persistent reference to money as a collective trust-fueled time machine).  Regulated banks, given their capacity for relative value asset transformation - the ability to take a fraction of deposits and expand them into a plethora of illiquid asset value through debt - can do things that "shadow" institutions can't.  But, hold on a minute.  Might this be a good thing?  Might it be good for us to develop value exchanges built on consensus asset value rather than on deposit-leveraged capital expansion? 

And, back to the FOMC meeting, isn't it the case that one of the reasons why the Fed is so hamstrung with its absence of options is because it has to choose between destroying illusory value created in mortgage instruments by "light" lenders and raising interest rates which, while increasing the attractiveness of depositors, will highlight the absence of real asset value across the economy?

Ninth century BCE Chinese were careful observers of light and constructed elaborate pictographic representations of the interaction of light and darkness.  The concept of a shadow - the maternal, the North face of a mountain which was not exposed to the sun, or what we now refer to as yin - did not connote mystery, nefarious, and illusive.  In fact, in calligraphy and philosophy, the concept of "shadow" was understood to represent the interface between diffuse light and static form.  In other words, the idea of shadow was the recognition that opaque geometry provided an increased precision; a more clear edge of illumination if you will.  Our current commercial banking system - with it's Fed dependency, it's market manipulating depositor seduction apparatus (the FDIC), and it's asset value inflationary effect - is NOT light.  And the reason why investors are sitting on pins and needles about this week is because there's not even a candle in the window telling us what is coming.  It's possible that the "shadow" system - a system in which real value is really exchanged - may finally illumine the pathologies in our teetering 100 year-old fractional experiment and we might step into the Light.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Wilderness Temptations and Unicorns


Government media censors in Vietnam were somewhat puzzled years ago when I was asked to critique the U.S. venture capital model at a speech in Hanoi.  Rather than extolling the virtues of Sand Hill Road, I suggested that without military and 'intelligence' spending with their excessive price elasticity in classified procurement; without tax-loss harvesting for wealthy elite; and, without a celebrated sociopathic cult of the individual, the U.S. venture-based entrepreneurial model would collapse.  And while the edges of classified relationships between espionage and domestic surveillance with companies ranging from social media and telecommunications to high tech are leaking with greater frequency, the full extent of venture complicity in U.S. government concessions in media and technology remains opaque (and likely keeps Edward Snowden in the negotiating driver's seat with the data he's yet to dump).  The full, unedited text of my speech was published to the surprise of many conferees.

Over the past several weeks I've encountered snake-oil salesmen who are attempting to promote this 50 year-old economic failed experiment across Europe, the Pacific, Asia, and Africa.  Despite pouring billions of public dollars down venture capital and venture banking yawning chasms of recklessness, governments and private sector interests continue to delude themselves into the irreproducible model that none have seriously studied.  Throw a little northeastern business school logo on the propaganda and you've got best-seller fantasies designed to seduce from Sydney to Singapore to Stuttgart.  And the most recent version on the delusion - the much heralded "unicorn" phenomena - is being lauded in economies with no private equity,  middle market M&A, or meaningful IPO ecosystems!  It's one thing to be optimistically naïve.  To be clearly detached from reality is another matter all together.

During a recent conversation around a business partner's dinner table, the subject of venture-backed entrepreneurship came up in its typical historicism-laden acclaim.  Maybe like any other toxin, the body builds up a tolerance to a certain level and then, one dose too many and full on anaphylaxis shows up.  As the audience was explicitly predisposed to the Christian tradition, I decided to critique the venture model in unambiguous religious metaphor. 

In the Gospel of Luke, the fourth chapter details the forty day tribulation of Jesus in the wilderness.  After fasting for over five weeks, the "devil" approaches Jesus with the simple proposition, "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread," to which Jesus answers, "Man shall not live by bread alone."  Next, the devil took Jesus to a vista from which he could see all the kingdoms of the world and said that, for the price of bowing down to him, he'd be given them all.  Jesus' response was, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only."  Finally, the devil then places Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down to let the angels show up and rescue him.  Jesus responds, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

The parallels between this account and the modern venture based entrepreneurial model are spectacular. 

Stones to bread.  In our hunger to achieve our autonomy and fame, we're conditioned to "make a living".  Most people do this through the cunning prostitution of time and labor in exchange for money.  In the dominant entrepreneurial meme, innovation and invention are the stones which need to be turned into funding.  Never mind the veracity or uniqueness of "innovation"; the mere possession of an idea that some pool of capital is too naïve to know has already existed in another context or location is sufficient for the first seduction.  What makes this phase so seductive is the allure to perform the ultimate alchemy - turn the ignorance of oneself and others into gold (yeah, and saying you'll do great philanthropic things with the gold doesn't launder the price of your soul).  And well over 90% of those who promote themselves as being worthy of funding aren't.  They cannot stand alone as business creators.  They cannot stand alone as managers.  They cannot stand alone as discerning stewards.  And they manufacture the tax losses that provide their patrons with benefit in their own demise.  Temptation failed!

Kingdoms of the World.  Those who 'make it' through the first or second funding round get the privilege to cede their impulse to those who provide capital for the lure of individuated fame and fortune.  In this next phase, the community that supported the emerging impulse is referred to as "friends, family, and fools."  All you need to do is prove allegiance to the arbiters of scarce capital flow and they'll give access to the world.  In this stage, the network of proximity is traded away for the illusion of anonymous influence on the masses.  Numbers exist in 7 and 8 figures with many zeroes.  It's not funding for what the enterprise requires, it's a number that feeds the ego.

Desecrate the Temple.  Throw yourself down and the angels will catch you.  This last phase is the ultimate seduction.  File your S-1 and, in this day and age, the angels are the pensions and the institutions that pour billions of dollars into public offerings to lift up value based on PE ratios that range from the ludicrous to the ephemeral in which E doesn't even exist.  It's not about revenue, it's about influence the salivating masses are told.  Who needs a business if you have the right story?  After all, this is about capitalism, isn't it?  And if you can put your revenue in a tax haven, all the better to doubly undermine the systemic risk already fluffed into the system.

So the formula is simple.  Start with an individuated breach of integrity fueled by the illusion of scarcity.  Add loyalty purchased, not earned.  And top it off with illusions foisted on the fawning public.  Presto, change-o!  You've got the system that has not grown wealth for the majority of America over the last 60 years.  According to the data feeding into the FOMC next week, while we've grown employment for the last 12 quarters, wages have not grown while the total number of permanently jobless has.  And this is the model that we seek to export to a disillusioned world.

Is there an alternative?  Absolutely!  Is it worth taking?  The jury's out on that one for many.

The whole stones-into-bread nonsense is the by-product of isolation and its off-spring: scarcity.  When genuine innovation shows up, it does so in context.  Innovation is far from an individuated phenomenon.  It is the synthesis of disparate inputs into a coalesced conception.    If it is allowed to take root and manifest in the fertile soil in which it germinates from an idea to a formulated impulse it can be embodied in sufficient scale to conscript aid in all forms and from all sources.  Once sprouted, others can engage with the idea and take it to deployment at an appropriate scale and distribute it to the local area network in which the context exists.  The response to the dissemination of the ideas, goods or services provides discernment from a connected community that acknowledges or rejects the value proposition at which point these inputs can be assimilated for the enterprise cycle to commence.  Enterprise based on maximize productive, utility and consequence seeks flow and current, not static charge.  Kingdoms-of-the-world promises are management nightmares.  Few of us adequately manage our own lives to say nothing of colleagues, markets, and corporate empires.  And while the lottery-odds unicorns are celebrated by those still living in fantasies, slipping into delusional states is best done when it doesn't put public capital at risk.

It's a sad commentary on humanity that the last 2,000 years has done precious little to change how pathetically predictable our vulnerabilities are to the exact same temptation formula.  What's even more grievous is the gladiatorial silent assent that fuels our diversions ranging from venture conferences to Shark Tank where we watch serial proselytizing of the predatory dogma.  If we're going to bring the capital flow back into reality, it's going to take serious education of capital and entrepreneur alike.  One without the other is destined to fail.  But educated in tandem, we might find enable our higher angels.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Taking Account of Effort: Persian Critique of Europe


Cyrus the Great - yes, I really like referencing him - had a simple system of compensation.  At the end of a victorious battle, the plunder would be laid out before his commanders and soldiers and each would be invited to take whatever they deemed appropriate for their own compensation.  He and his closest trusted generals would take the rest.  In this practice he sought to teach a bunch of lessons fueled by complex interactions between self-awareness, greed, fear and reward. 

Think about it.  You're a soldier who has fought hard.  You are coming up to the plunder and in your head a bunch of things are vying for attention.  If you're smart, your calculus goes something like this.

"I really want the gold chalice.  However, I know that my companion really loves the chalice so what I can do is: a) leave it and hope he gets it; b) pick it up as my compensation and use it as a gift to cement our friendship; c) keep it and hope that through my possession of it, he and I can build some common connection; d) take the gold chain instead because it's got more gold…"

"Dude, pick something up," the guy three soldiers behind shouts out.

What I love about the compensation scheme design for the Cyrus campaigns was the fact that it was filled with subtle wisdom.  Take, in full view of your colleagues, what you deem to be appropriate and suitable.  Instantaneous accountability.  Instantaneous evidence of future commitment to the collective.  Instantaneous perception on self and collective awareness.

In the past week, I have been invited to consider how far we are from the Cyrenian accountability.  For value that I delivered in three different transactions, I've seen:
-           one instance where others are violating their own fraternity fighting over the spoils to which they were a party but in which they did not lead the campaign;
-           one instance where a soldier is deeply struggling with the articulation of the value of his contribution in light of the entire needs of the community; and,
-           one instance where something I evidenced to have value has given rise to an elaborate process of defining structure around a future battle yet to be fought.

I've often said that corruption relies on three critical elements for its maximum success.  The more remote, anonymous and unverifiable the operating conditions, the more viable the ecosystem is for corruption.  Cyrus solved for all three.  He made his men take their compensation in front of their colleagues.  Problem solved.  By being in the same space, accountability was immediate.  Everyone around you knew how you fought.  If you did well, be handsomely rewarded.  If you cowered at the back, demur from taking anything.  Seeing the scale of compensation both acknowledged the effort of the day past but also set an expectation of the performance in the day ahead.  Maybe you carried the day.  Still being appropriate and judicious says that you realize that tomorrow you may need to rely on the valor of others.  And evidencing the capacity to take what is suitable while leaving options for others is a measure of self and collective awareness.

As I engaged a call with a prospective business client this week, these thoughts came rushing in on both the macro and micro scale.  And it dawned on me that central to our collective systemic challenges is our failure to clearly articulate missions.  Cyrus' system worked because he and his men all knew what their end goal was.  Imperial conquest which would leave many of them dead but let their version of civilization flourish.  I know that my apathy for conversations about compensation up front comes from my experience of knowing the mission that I'm on.  I'm also aware enough to know that the value of the endeavor is seldom fully known prior to its launching - a knowledge shared by a precious few.

We don't know what to do with reserve rates and bailouts not because we don't have the technical reflexes to spring into action.  We don't know what to do because we don't have a clearly defined mission on where we're going.  I nearly laughed at the February 27, 2015 Financial Times article about IMF's Christine Lagarde's interaction on the Greek debt debacle.  She insists that she expects "clear commitments" from a country who has evidenced complete contempt for both words (clear and commitment).  She and the Greek government all fail in taking a step back and asking about the end-game of their efforts.  As a result, this scarcity-based, floundering effort is entirely incapable of effectiveness because each soldier and each commander are trying to get what they can rather than evidence alignment towards a mission that is a common purpose.

The IMF's problem (along with the EU) is the failure to contemplate a world in which economic hierarchy is less evident than it was 50 years ago.  We're using multi-lateral schemes designed by arrogant elitists who always had mantras of free natural resources, cheap labor, and upper echelon consumption in their narrative.  Now when many aspire to formerly exclusive level consumption and few aspire to being producers, our capacity to confront real structural issues is side-stepped in the dance of debt.  What's Greece worth?  Well, that depends on what world we're building.  What's the EU worth?  That also depends on the world we're building.

What We The People need is clearly articulated missions - not a priori expectations on how the plunder is to be divided.  And I got to realize this week, my complicity in assuming that we all kind of knew this all along.  We don't and I'm going to make a much more concerted commitment to explicitly stating the mission before the soldiers line up.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hollow Horses: Janet's Apollonian Curse


"I'm afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts."

Laocoön in Virgil's Aeneid, Book II

Before she was raped and murdered, King Priam's daughter Cassandra was allegedly seduced by Apollo with the proposition that in exchange for sex she would receive the capacity to prophesy.  Through some twist of chastity, Apollo got upset with her spurning of his affections and cursed her with the fate of being right but never believed.  So, when she advised the Trojans that the large wooden horse was actually the agency of their downfall, they neglected her warnings and the rest is history.  Her miserable life ended as the assassinated concubine of King Agamemnon of Mycenae.  How's that for a tough dose of reality!

There's more than enough Greek tragedy to go around this week and everybody's got a little case of the Siege of Troy going on.  The Germans and the French are sick and tired of promises of Aegean austerity being met with populist protests which lead to Greek political accommodation.  The IMF is frustrated and doesn't see a path forward that doesn't include massive political and social upheaval.  And let's face it: this is not a great time to incite the oppressed classes in any country into revolt.  Before long, you could have all kinds of things going wrong and there are already enough things off the rails.  

If you try to trace what's gone on in Greece since the run up to the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 (you really don't want to pull back the curtain on that if you want to live in blissful ignorance of what's happening in the Middle East right now), you'll note that there have been over €300 billion pumped into Greek economic support packages none of which have a reasonable expectation of being repaid.  In a recent article, Princeton University's Professor of History and International Affairs Harold James attempted to unpack the populist message in Greece reminding creditor-in-chief Germany that it still owes Greece an unpaid debt from the end of World War I.   "When democracy" [the pro-labor stance that says that Greek pensions should be untouched and that austerity is too austere] "is used to justify shifting a country's burden onto its neighbors, integration becomes impossible - and both democracy and the international order may be jeopardized.  Just as financial contagion can spread market uncertainties through neighboring economies, so, too, can political contagion spread the adoption of a zero-sum mentality."

Whew!  I'm so thankful that I'm living in America where we don't have any of these… I'm sorry, what is that?  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is about to address Congress on Tuesday to discuss U.S. interest rates.  Oh, no worries, unemployment is down, oil prices are low which should boost consumer spending.  Right?  Nothing to see here - back to the EU paroxysm… right?

Well, kind of… almost… not quite. 

As I sought to untangle the bailouts and refinancings of the Greeks, I thought I'd check in on the lovely U.S. of A. and see how we're doing with our post-2008 financial house.  For that, I pulled up the February 19, 2015 H.4.1. - a document that I find deeply informative and more Greek tragedy than I'd like.  It's always mind bending to see that in a country where we have about $1.3 trillion in circulation, the Fed holds $1.7 trillion in mortgages, $2.5 trillion in Treasury securities and other assets totally about $4.5 trillion in reserve funds.  Over the past week, it picked up another $14 billion in mortgage-backed securities just to beef up a health economy!  Well done.  But footnote 17 - you know the one - at the bottom of the footnote section where you never actually go to read is that pesky little line item "liability for interest on Federal Reserve notes due to the U.S. Treasury" which currently sits at $65.4 billion. 

Four years ago, through a technical accounting gimmick, the Federal Reserve created a mechanism whereby it could never show a capital loss.  Let's examine this more closely.  The Federal Reserve is required to send its profits to the U.S. Treasury and, given their amazing investments in things like AIG's Maiden Lane, Mortgage Back Securities and the like - this amount should be sizable.  As long as interest rates stay anemically low, the Fed's ability to earn income in excess of interest paid on bank reserves is totally cool.  However, if the Fed ever had to sell assets - like mortgages and other securities - at a loss, it would lose money, right?  Not so fast!  Now, if the Fed loses money on saleable assets, it reports it as a negative interest due to the U.S. Treasury.  In other words, if the Fed loses money, such losses will be offset against future remittances to the Treasury thereby making the Fed incapable of having a negative capital position.  And clearly, smart people who are watching our economic interests care, right?  The ultimate anti-Cassandra clarity award goes to Bank of America's Ralph Axel who stated that: "We will not make too much of a fuss over this accounting change, but the overall theme of reduced government credibility is strengthened by it."  Wow!  The theme of reduced credibility is strengthened…. beware of bank executives and their beguiling Fed double speak. 

So here's a puzzle.  If Yellen signals a rise in interest rates, it's going to effectively devalue the "assets" held on its own balance sheet (which it bought during a period where Quantitative Easing mandated buying assets others didn't want).  But that's cool, right?  Because she'll be able to pick up the benefit of a negative interest on obligations due the Treasury and so she'll actually suffer no loss.  However, if the Fed doesn't suffer a loss, doesn't someone have to pick up the tab?  Ummm…

Greece, the U.S., and the E.U. all have the same problem.  During the end of the siege from 2008-2011, some clever soldiers got together and left a horse outside the city gates.  It had the name Quantitative Easing hung around its neck.  And, failing to heed the voices of the Cassandras who said that if we take the horse into our debauched celebration of economic recovery, bad things might come out and stab us in our sleep, we drug the colossal gift into our balance sheets.  And now, realizing that the horse was loaded with our undoing, we've decided to shift attention on the Greeks and their incapacity to be fiscally responsible in hopes that no one ever reads the footnotes in our financial statement.  Because if they did, they'd see that our problems are an order of magnitude bigger and, as Harold James put it, "both democracy and the international order may be jeopardized".


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rage and the Machine


First off, there's no secret to my success or effectiveness.  I don't have a 12-step program.  When it comes to the 7 steps to wealth or 5, 7, 12 or more habits of successful people - bupkis!  And at some point, it may dawn on people who are pretty sure that I've got some insights worth sharing that I come in one size.  Me.  And that's the raw, unedited, unplugged, fully living in analog dynamism, Me.

Some really caring, empathetic individuals came up to me a few days ago and in hushed tones thought I should know that some people found my language offensive, my tone too harsh, and the dynamic range of my passion in presentation "unsettling". 

"You could be so much more effective if you softened your edges," one said.

"I don't really think you mean to come across as angry," stated another.

Now let's put this in context.  I've been asked to contribute to a series of gatherings lately where my experience in business and foresight have been explicitly solicited.  From post-modern, pseudo-spiritual Jungian "shadow work", to the Jaworski, Scharmer & Senge "Presencing" and Theory U, to the Robinson, Blank & Ries "minimum viable product" orthodoxy, to Swammerdam cum Chopra's "imaginal cells" (ironically first used to describe fruit flies - sorry all you feel-good butterfly enlightened ones!), to Prahalad & Ramaswamy's "co-creation", I've been asked to collaborate with purveyors of theories developed by others which are barely recognizable in the manifest deployment thereof.  And while each of these theories served an elucidation function for their progenitors' impulse to communicate, their unconsidered promulgation as a catechism for social engagement is revolting.  Having read an essay or attended a workshop may be suitable for voyeuristic intrigue but it does, my no means, elicit mastery.  Put another way, being able to quote the works of an "anticipatory design scientist" does not a geodesic dome construct. 

Appealing to the sweeping generalizations endemic in Occidental religious dogma regarding the essential nature of humanity and its defiled state, Jung was able to ride a secular wave with his "all have shadows" proclamation.  Theory U presupposes ubiquitous "blind spots".  MVP favors velocity and illusion over momentum and mass.  Imaginal and co-creative impulses perpetuate historicism errors dependent on a linear evolutionary ascent model.  And each of these methods seek to impose mean reversion on a population and its constituents rather than elucidating conditions in which the wild-type mutagenicity is fostered.

If we presuppose the First Law of Thermodynamics which stipulates matter and energy exist in persistent, transitive phases and states (neither created nor destroyed) in a closed system, we can readily conclude that all animation and agency we need is present in our ecosystem.  If we layer onto that presupposition Auguste Comte's positivism - the deterministic "natural order" - we find ourselves in a space that diminishes our capacity to fully engage the abundance that is in our field.  Heisenberg's observation that positivism requires us to "pass over in silence" that which doesn’t fit our model of reality concludes that positivism is a, "pointless philosophy, seeing that we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing."

After being told that my presentation material and style was abrasive and offensive, I decided to enter into a deep observation mode.  I noticed that those most offended by my style were most engaged with copious alcohol consumption at breaks and in late evenings.  I noticed that the purveyors consensus theories of incrementalism promulgated to promote the illusion of "doing something" were engaging in activities clearly evidencing disdain for personal integrity.  And all the while I reflected on why my rage against prima facie fallacies promoted to seduce aspiring entrepreneurs into the jaws of a system that devours all it contacts was somehow deemed offensive while ethanol-induced analgesia was embraced with no critique.  How does a hydroxl linked saturated carbon atom get permission to impair human potential while precise, verbal and aesthetic cognitive stimulation get indicted for being too intrusive? 

And then it dawned on me.  I live in an unconstrained analog system optimized for highly varied operations in acoustic, light, thermal, positional and pressure conditions.  I've chosen a path that has preserved the perceptive amplitude of all my awareness never seeking to deaden pain, escape emotions, transcend the present, or dismiss the unfamiliar.  My opening proposition with any being or any experience is one in which I love to test signal responses across the entire range of energy.  I love operating across dynamic ranges and fall madly into intimate fellowship and partnership with those who fully engage their full amplitude.  And when I encounter those who either constrain their own capacity by socially imposed normative ranges defined as "acceptable" or "nice", I am deeply saddened.  But more than that, I also am cautious.  If one has deadened the capacity to feel and perceive what is considered to be "abnormal" or "negative", then discernment is impaired.  If one has closed the aperture of perception to only engage the normative, than radical mutations that could unleash massive consequential shifts in individual or collective experiences will be ignored.  When one limits their own views and inputs, I'm truly saddened.  When one seeks to impose limits on others - I'm truly angry.  And here's the deal:  if you really want to make an impact on a system optimized for mean reversion and consensus, you're going to piss a few people off.  But that's fine.  Because what they're truly experiencing is an indictment of their own lost dynamism and, with any luck, a little jolt to the system might remind them of their true purpose for living and, who knows, they might come back to reality.

While contemplating suicide and in painful alcohol fueled despondency, Buckminister Fuller reported being told by a white light:

"You don't have the right to eliminate yourself.  You do not belong to you.  You belong to the Universe.  Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others."

He went forward from that moment, harnessing the full amplitude of his life's experiences and served the "highest advantage of others".  Live Fully and Unconstrained.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song?


At the Third International Conference on Creativity and Innovation at Grassroots, I had the great fortune of meeting the luminous Catherine A. Odora Hoppers, South African Research Chair in Development Education at the University of South Africa.  In her presentation, "Epistemology of Hope" she articulated the vital importance of emancipating the language of and social models for "development" from the implicit and explicit influences of colonial hierarchical values.  As her animated presentation captured the audience at the Indian Institute for Management at Ahmedabad, I kept hearing the echo of Boney M's Rivers of Babylon in my mind.

"When the wicked carried us away in captivity;
Required from us a song,
Now how shall we sing the lord's song in a strange land?"

Somewhere between the song and musing whether Catherine was channeling the wisdom of Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, I reflected on my presentation the day earlier.  During the Doctoral Colloquium, I made the observation that many of the terms that were being used in the conference: "development", "economy", "knowledge", "innovation", "creativity" and the like have a phenotypic neutrality that belies the energetic framework from which they arise.  And in their unconsidered use and propagation, there is a chance that we may enter into double binds where what we aspire to promote is in fact impaired by an implicit ontological dissonance. 

Let me offer an example.  A young lady in the audience stated that she was involved in "human resources" management at a government sponsored innovation center in India.  Much to her surprise, I asked her if she could give me the Sanskrit word for "human resources".  She looked puzzled.  Those around her had various expressions - some smiled, some shook their heads, and other looked entirely perplexed.  One of the students offered what those around him seemed to concur was the best approximation.  Not familiar with the word, I asked for it's literal translation.  The consensus response centered around a meaning that was basically "humans as tools".  I asked the young lady if she felt that her colleagues would warmly receive being treated as tools or implements to which she recoiled.  "Of course not, Sir," was her response.  "So is there a chance that your title, if altered, could impact your work and the experience of colleagues?," I queried.  What if her job was a purposeful productivity optimization facilitator?

Raghubir, another participant in the Colloquium took the example a step further.  He shared that "economy" in Hindi and Sanskrit is "arthashastra".  He explained that artha is a term describing meaning and purpose while shastra is a term for a body of knowledge.  Would we speak of "economic development" in the same way if what it involved was expanding the base of knowledge around meaning and purpose?  No!  We would need to actually focus on knowledge rather than the propaganda derived from the Adam Smith intoxication which has led to massive resource extinction and wealth disproportionality.  To the Greeks oikonomía (from which our word "economy" was derived) was the management or administration of a household.  Would we use the same language we do around markets and money if we were speaking in reference to how we engage our own families?  Don't answer that one!  Just think about it.

As we were told, "You are what you eat," so too is it the case that the lexicon you use or adopt should be considered carefully.  If you want to perpetuate the system that is dominant, use its lingua franca.  But if you want a different outcome, it may be prudent to consider being more precise with the words we choose.

Rather than exploration in which we the intrepid "explorers" forge our way into unknown lands or fields of inquiry, could we adopt a more suitable posture of education where we are explicit about our own ignorance thereby allowing the unknown to inform?  Rather than discovery where we use old frameworks of familiarity to isolate within, could we adopt a stance of observation in which we see perspective and context?  Rather than conquest in which we lay claim to ownership of what we reduced to description, could we consider integration where we place ourselves into the expanding network of utility?  Rather than colonization where we impose frameworks upon what we shortly before didn't know, could we contribute what we have to build out a more complete experience for ourselves and others?  Rather than commoditization where we exploit and extract to extinction, could we consider fruitful cooperation in which we experience without extermination?  And rather than innovation in which we separate and make special the individual who adapts matter and energy for efficiency, comfort or utility, can we celebrate integral perception in which our focus is on the action giving rise to the artifact?  Sure, these terms won't count on scorecards of development and GDP but who's keeping score?

Note:  For regular Inverted Alchemists, I will be off-line next week in Antarctica and will be back in two weeks.  So, next weekend, share your favorite post with your friends and I'll see you soon!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of Pots and Kettles - MLK Day 2015


If you were in Goshen Indiana 55 years ago this past week and had two bucks rattling around in your pocket, you could have gone to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on "The Future of Integration".  If you were on a tight budget, you could get the cheap seats for $1.25.  In the Union Auditorium you would have encountered a number of passionate northern college students deeply committed to address the scourge of racism that was wracking the country.  With any luck, you would've met my dad there.

This past week I was asked to address Rev. Jesse Jackson's RainbowPUSH Wall Street Project conference in New York City.  This event - part of Rev. Jackson's on-going effort to highlight the absence of minority participation in the economy with a special focus on the tech sector - was about as diverse as the Union Auditorium would have been in 1960.  And, regrettably, though the pages of the calendar have long faded in oblivion, the Sheraton Time Square was not filled with evidence of the giant strides we made as a society to eradicate ethnic bigotry.  Instead, it was an echo of aspiration to access that is still denied humans by virtue of capricious contempt and toxic xenophobia.

The phenotype expressed through pigment is still an agency of social division no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise.  Access to capital, interest rates, access to business opportunities, access to education, access to housing, and access to many other opportunities are still mediated by the wavelength of reflected epithelial light.  This is as wrong now as it was 55 years ago in Indiana.  And our approach to addressing this human rights abuse (that's right, the U.S. is still a supporter of human rights abuses) is potentially more harmful today than it was 6 decades ago.  Why?  Well let me answer the question and then unpack my perspective.  By thinking that we're doing something - like the Congressional debates on 49 U.S.C. § 47113 regarding "minority and disadvantaged business participation" - we are confirming our unwillingness to have a zero tolerance policy for any form of bigotry and racism.  And worse, by the persistent use of "set-asides" and "accommodations", we allow racists to persist in their bigotry by imposing a participation tax where minority businesses are seen as a necessary social cause rather than a valued player on an equivalent field.  Sure, we'll grant minority and women owned businesses 5-10% of our government procurement or corporate supply chain but we'll do nothing to provide the capital infrastructure to let that glass floor ever be breached.

President Richard Nixon established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise with his Executive Order 11458 and with it formalized the access agenda.  This unleashed the formation of many acronym-laden committees, councils and boards all with an aim towards…, um, well, apparently, conversations about how access should be equivalent.  But with 20% of the U.S. population identified as Black or African/American and roughly half of the population women, it's clear that we are not serious about the access "aspirational goals" to say nothing about representational mandates.  As recently as the past two years, we still define economically disadvantaged individuals and businesses as, "those socially disadvantaged… whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same business are who are not socially disadvantaged."  But the same Congress that defines disadvantage in the past tense also recommended limiting sole-source contracts to "disadvantaged businesses" at values capped at $4 million and construction contracts at $65 million.  In short, what we have done in 55 years is opened the door ajar to afford a modicum of access but we've insured that no one actually makes it into the ballroom.

In 1969 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were about 163,000 black-owned and 100,000 Spanish-speaking minority-owned firms.  You read this correctly.  One wave-length of light and one cultural acoustic discrimination.  The same survey taken in 2007 reported 5.8 million minority-owned firms.  And to be sure, the MBDA, NMSDC, RainbowPUSH, and others have done an amazing job of getting more businesses into the foyer of enterprise.  But, the idea that the next tech IPO, the next financial services innovation, the next social media tsunami will be led by someone categorized as "minority" is as remote at the RainbowPUSH conference as it was in Goshen.

I don't know what it is about the Sheraton Times Square in NYC that gives me that "minority feeling".  Several months ago, I attended the Emerging Women's Summit to absorb the wisdom of my dear friend Sera Beak.  Being one of the only guys in the room, I was acutely aware of being the one that stands out.  This week, I was one of the few appearance-minority wave-length reflectors of a particular hue.  In both instances, I had something to add to the conversation.  And in both instances, what I had to share was indecipherable against the backdrop of segregation.   We The People are not merely the wavelength of light our skin reflects.   We are not merely the genitals which grace our loins or the fat deposits which adorn our chests.  Or the hair that some of us have!  Our experiments fueled by reflexive revulsion to our pathetic impulse to separate and segregate have morphed the impulse towards access into an anemic accommodation.  We're willing to tolerate each other on the best of days.  But as we are not engaging conversations or experiments in integrated activation leading to emanating productivity we are destined to aspire to much and achieve very little. 

This is not a U.S. phenomenon.  Segregation and the violence it engenders shows up in religious, political, class and gender illusions the world over.  It comes in the form of ethnic and gender adjective-laced population generalizations, colonial "development" bribes to usurp landowner and citizens of the rights and resources, impulses to "development", "poverty eradication", "Aid", and other insidious social schemes to reinforce disintegrated illusions to reinforce power delusions.  And it's as likely to show up harming and diminishing communities of persistence from the Lakota and Navajo to Bougainville and Amazonia - all justified by the appearance of "the other" at the expense of their explicit engagement by those who wield the agencies of power and domination.

So rather than lament the hopeless state we're in, we're actively changing the game.  Working with my amazing friends and colleagues Theresa Arek, Lawrence Daveona, Rodney Woods, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Duane and Kim Starks, Pam Cole, Robert Smith, Progress Investments, Valerie Mosely, Michael Lythcott, Jennifer Carter-Scott, Dustin and Michael DiPerna, Leo Burke, Colleen Martin, Pieter Fourie, Jimmy Smith, Katie Martin, Karen Knowles and dozens of others, we're answering the questions that Martin Luther King Jr. posed 55 years ago this week.  We're not waiting for a future - not tenaciously holding onto a dream.  We're forging a path defined by integrity and character - not by any agency of division.  We are deploying a technology in the social media space which will include a diversity ownership structure.  We have launched and are launching sophisticated investment platforms and products not available from any "majority" owned firm.  Silently placing fulcrum under systems of oppression and segregation, we're beginning to introduce a wobble that sees the vision articulated from the mountaintop and raises it to a whole new level.  And who knows?  Maybe we will, in so doing, form a More Perfect Union!  And it might not take us another 55 years. 

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, let's wake from the Dream and start living!