Sunday, February 27, 2011

Pushing the Elephant in the Room

Addressing an international audience of some of the world’s most influential CEOs, Rose Mapendo recounted her life experience as the recipient of the greatest forms of cruelty dealt at the hands of brutal, violent men. Listening to her presentation beginning with the haunting languid melody of the song of hope and forgiveness, the same one she sang for months as she heard the screams of the dying and the living tortured with physical and sexual abuse, one could not help but be transported to the anguish-filled nightmare of East-Central Africa. At the end of her presentation, the chorus of responses from the audience was singular.

“What can we do?”

When a room full of global industry leaders hear Rose’s impassioned plea for justice and peace and respond with a “what can we do?” impulse, I wonder which part of the orgy of consumer enterprise blinds so many from the recognition that it was the institutions celebrated as idealized titans of industry that are those who maimed, killed, raped, and tortured the very ones whose voices echo in the notes of Rose’s song. Do we ignore the fact that between 1950 and 1989, the U.S. delivered in excess of $1.5 billion in military equipment to the region? Under the sterilized name of Foreign Military Assistance – a code name for our subsidizing of U.S. defense contractors’ sales around the world – much of the military hardware came with our own name stamped on the weapons and munitions. And we are not alone. Chinese and European firms, with full knowledge of their ultimate genocidal use, continue to authorize the weaponization of conflicts which serve to distract local communities while their mineral, gem, and energy wealth is stolen.

But, to honor the question Ms. Mapendo asked, “What is the source, not the symptom of our violence?” we must confront a topic that is NOT addressed in sterile gatherings of global business executives. How many of us know the contribution of our own unconsidered consumption which funded the terror meted out to millions? Did we ask ourselves whether the imbalanced concessions provided to Chevron / Congo Gulf provided the liquidity that turned fossil fuels into human extinctions? Did we concern ourselves with the pension funds and investment banks that financed the oil, diamond, and metals businesses whose disproportionate wealth extraction created feudal despotism that erupted into genocide? When did any of us – from London to Toronto to New York to Australia to Hong Kong – actually demand that publicly listed companies in whom we invested report MATERIAL events – including known human rights abuses to local communities and expediency payments (the politically correct term for bribes) to “security” provided by governments or militias?

As the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century faced the dehumanizing pragmatism of the profitability of slavery, in our modern economy, why do we refuse to see that genocide and abuse of human dignity are NOT relics of the past but utilities that give us cheap electronics, energy and extravagant luxuries? In a region with an estimated $26 trillion in energy, metals, agriculture potential, and other materials, why can’t we find any capital market that has the courage to stand up and say that, on our watch, humanity will refuse to create the economic disparities that lead to rebels deciding that shooting husbands and preserving wives, mothers, and daughters for sexual abuse and torture is “a good use of precious commodities like bullets?” With bilateral investment agreements with the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and others, which citizen will stand up and be the voice that turns Rose’s painful lament into a chorus of humanity?

Let’s be clear. We continue to dishonor the plight of the death camp survivors in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rest of the region when we refuse to face the fact that it is OUR inhumanity that fuels genocide. But for the cash supplied by Chevron, Congo Gulf Oil, Citibank, Telecel, Mobil, Group Damseaux, Tabacongo/Rothman, BAT, PLC, and others, violence wouldn’t be directed at the tribal conflict over the single digit percentages of revenues and profits extracted from the region. In countries where foreign investors must invest at least 70 percent of their capital in foreign currency – making local despotism and mercenary arming far more convenient for the agents of death – why can’t we see that our money supply robbed Rose of her husband, her home, and peaceful dreams? When scarcity is manufactured in the face of abundance, violence has ALWAYS been there. We cannot, for one moment, sit back in horror and anesthetize ourselves from the reality that we are the torturer.

When a Chinese gaming company buys a U.S. gaming company for several hundred million dollars, can we see in the fantasy war-game the actual violence that made the graphics processor optimized with metals from the anonymous dead? In a culture of business executives that applauds the miniaturization of genomics processors so that science can automate the synthesis of “life”, can we see that the components that run the computers and sequencers rely on the lives of real humans for whom clean drinking water is a luxury for less than 1 in 12 and where life expectancy is 47 years?

It is time to change the narrative. “Corporate Social Responsibility” is not enough. If we are going to be remembered for anything other than the scourges of immoral and unconsidered consumption, we must practice – and demand from all parties with whom we do business – an accountability that says that profits built on the dehumanization of others are no longer tolerated. And let’s be honest. The only reason why we don’t take the time to inform ourselves about the source of the metals in our iEverythings and mobileApp everything else is because we want to remain blind. In a world which could watch in rapt attention as Egypt collapsed and Libya consumed itself with blood, we don’t want to know that with knowledge comes responsibility. We call it a knowledge economy but we’ve actively chosen a path of ignorance. This must end.

Every stock exchange on the planet must institute a listing requirement requiring every listed company to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in all business practices.

Every securities oversight authority must have a public reporting mechanism to enable transparency provided by local communities directly impacted by the businesses conducted by public companies.

Every public company must be required, at its annual meeting, to have local representation from the workers or landowners of every place where business is conducted.

Every pension fund and investment manager must represent and warrant (at pain of financial and International Criminal Court censure) that it confirms that no funds are used for the use of force to effectuate or optimize the conduct of business.

Too radical?

Tragically, in our present trajectory, the mournful song of a woman in a death camp is likely to join the massive choir of those whose songs have been extinguished until a few of us start singing a “sweeter song”.

Rose named her story “Pushing the Elephant” in honor of the traditional African story that teaches that, to move an elephant, one must act with others because a lone actor cannot push the elephant. I would suggest that Rose’s challenge is infinitely more difficult given our denial of the existence of the elephant.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Trickle Down Morality

As I am wont to do, I left a conversation this week with an aspiring U.S. Foreign Service enthusiast puzzling over why, after millennia of seeing the futility of military ideological indoctrination, madness seemed more the rule than considered reason. In a country where, absent wartime procurement, we’d have a shrinking GDP for the 12th year running, I reflected on the roots of our incapacity to imagine an economy in which we genuinely built value on an aspiration for the reflected choice of liberty rather than the dogmatic zealotry of “freedom” at the end of a gun. Drenched in nostalgia for the heady days of the Reagan years – so banally celebrated on the centenary of his birth – and the glorious sponsorship of “Freedom Fighters” who in their modern incarnation, armed with our defense industry, have turned their weapons on us so as to be now referred to as “terrorists”, I mused at the intractable predictability of our impulse to support mayhem.

On a gloriously balmy day – more April than February – I probably would have let this topic pass but for a gnawing sense that a systemic, fatal error is lurking just under the surface of the Middle East and North Africa paroxysms. What struck me as alarming is the fact that I recognized the sequence of failures in governments corresponding with a very old, very forgotten, much abused law from the 1960s. To be precise, the collapsing countries of the past few weeks all seem to be the beneficiaries of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (Public Law 87-195). In fact, there is an ominous correlation between the nature of certain funding programs and the sequence of uprisings. This Act, which has been the proximate cover for overt and covert acts by the U.S. government for the past 50 years is worth the read if you want to see why we abandoned any hope of moral leadership on a global stage – unless you consider gunpoint to be a moral persuasion.

One only needs to read Section 620E of the Act to see precisely how far from a moral compass we’ve chosen to stray. Our assistance to Pakistan – including our arming of Afghans now killing coalition forces – was not only authorized under the animation of the Soviet occupation but, included providing Presidential authority to waive Arms Export Control Acts. My favorite section of the “Aid to Pakistan” program is the condition that, “lethal military equipment provided under this subparagraph shall be provided on a lease or loan basis only and shall be returned upon completion of the operation for which it was provided.” And who can forget the moral clarity of Section 620G which stipulates that the U.S. should withhold assistance to countries that participate or sponsor terror however, this can be waived, “if the President determines that furnishing such assistance is important to the national interests of the United States…”?

In the creation of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the United States made a fatal error in judgment – neither the first nor the last. And the events of the past 6 weeks are showing the seismic risk of this error; the failure to apply Integral Accounting appraisal to a value exchange. You see, our thinking in the late 1950’s until well into recent history, was that we could exchange “aid” for politico-economic allegiance. If we fed, trained, armed, or defended a country, we reasoned, we would gain lasting stability and loyalty. While this type of bribery may work in postwar reconstruction in Japan, Europe, or at home (with our public works programs), it fails to adequately calculate the, “Commodity”, “Custom & Culture” and “Money” dimensions in Integral Accounting.

Since the first Mongol-Sino traders crossed Afghanistan to the ports in North Africa in the first century BCE, trading involved the exchange of tangible artifacts. What started in the East as silk or spices, could wind up in Alexandria or Tunisia as grain or gold. This transformation involved several principles that are present to this day in the cultural memes in the region and are immune from the hegemony of the Bretton Woods dollar. The trade routes of Asia, Persia, the Middle East and North Africa relied on a transitive commodity mandate as much then as now. Willingness to transport or trade was based on local needs or abundance as much as it was based on some remote “market demand”. If you needed food and had a bunch of gold, in the moment of the arrival of food, it had greater value than gold so you exchanged what was unusable yet reserved for what was usable and demanded. As a result, exchanges were seen in light of pragmatic expediency, not in terms of absolute supply and demand in invisible, distant markets.

In this ecosystem, value was a combination of the traded artifact with the reward of a “good deal”. Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that when the Occidental moralists came calling with “aid” for which there’s no artifact exchange, mistrust is implicit. Clearly no one ever offers something for nothing. And in a world where the notion of artifact for ideology is the prima facie exchange, there is a certainty on the part of the recipient that a trap is being set. The Occidental policy failure was to mistake the counterparty who would accept our deal – the puppet autocrat who we’d promote into political supremacy – as an evidentiary party to the acquiescence of a country to our values and our proposed terms of engagement. We didn’t build alliances, we bribed malleable characters. And now, we’re watching as the façades fall.

While the covert abuses – from Reagan’s Nicaraguan Iran-Contra illegal activity to Bush-Cheney’s Bulf Oil and Greek Olympic “Security” financing of the weapons which are killing coalition forces – accelerate the failure of our misguided ideology, the overt, reported financing of moral exceptions to our stated values shows a level of hypocrisy which undermines any honor or credibility we might otherwise have. In the minds of an Asian or African observer, our willingness to place expediency as a paramount value when it comes to ideology amplifies the instability in countries around the world and erodes our ability to have any significant impact on transitions which are breaking out across the globe. In contrast, Chinese success in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and even “liberated” Iraq, comes complete with good old-fashioned trading – not on ideology but on assets – the way it’s always been done. The Chinese are no more amenable to theocracies than their democratic, capitalist competitors. However, in commodity value exchanges, ideology is subservient to transactive interest.

Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Haiti, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Bahrain, Burma, Cambodia, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya. If you made it on this list, you’re already in a fraternity where you may not want to be. You’ve been the recipient of a Cold War inspired doctrine which values frail ideological adherence over food, shelter and security. And if we, as conscious global citizens want to act before all the world is alight in unemployed, hungry anarchy, we would do well to figure out how to be part of a new narrative in these and related places around the world.

It is time for the U.S. to end the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Not because we shouldn’t actively assist those in grave need around the world. No, we should repeal the Act because it’s built on ideology long destroyed by termites and dry rot of our own fears and our collective neglect. In a world where the world’s fastest growing economy is communist (turned oddly market-capitalist), the end of the Act will be a wholesale loss of any last vestige of credibility. We’re not at war with communism – we’re in denial. We need to align our Foreign Assistance with those who are in need of genuine help so that they, and the world, can see a cascade of moral leadership in which those who genuinely care for humanity, the environment and the ecosystem of Earth champion wholeness rather than animus. Will this be an American enterprise or will it, at long last, be a global enterprise in which “isms” are placed into the realm of philosophical debates while we get about doing the work of being human? Let justice roll down.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Starting with the Universe

"The function of what I call design science is to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices. For example, when humans have a vital need to cross the roaring rapids of a river, as a design scientist I would design them a bridge, causing them, I am sure, to abandon spontaneously and forever the risking of their lives by trying to swim to the other shore."

- R. Buckminster Fuller, from Cosmography

Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak was not attuned to new artifacts. As a result, history will remember him not as the man that stood with Egypt’s peacemaker President Anwar El Sadat – close enough to be injured in the grenade blast that killed Sadat and propelled Mubarak to the Presidency in 1981 – nor the man who did much to bring Egypt onto the international scene as a vital source of power and stability. No, he will likely be remembered for the legacy of his perpetuation of the Emergency Law 162 (1958) which gave him sweeping powers so expansive that he believed himself to be above the law. And, on this week in 2011 he departed on the 32nd anniversary of Iran’s Shah’s exile in Cairo. He will be remembered as one of the first globally recognized powerful elite to fall to a new breed of social activism. While the U.S. would never allow a change of government like the one that we just witnessed in Egypt to take place in Washington D.C. without far greater human rights abuses and loss of life, I wonder if leaders across the globe took this week’s message to heart. The 363 year old Nation State is ending and a new social order is emerging.

And what took down Mubarak’s illusion of power – and will take down many more in the coming weeks, months and years – is the failure to honor the third tenet of Westphalia; namely, the covenant not to interfere with the sovereignty of states by any non-state actors or foreign interests. While it’s easy to point to the United States’ violent intervention as a clear affront to this revered principle, the more profound and consequential violation of the tenet is the prohibition on letters of marque, reprisal, and privateering. As I’ve written and spoken many times before, the transnational Corporation State, launched in the banking and corporate coup d'état which began in Europe in the early 19th century and whose cancer killed representational democracies across the globe by the early 20th century, thought that it could hide behind the façades of puppet heads of state in perpetuity. But when you build systems which remove the wealth of nations through agreements with despotic leaders for the benefit of foreign interests, the system will fail. The most ominous specter in the demise of Mubarak is sharpening his scythe for parasitic corporations who saw themselves beneficiaries of heads of state who did not care for their people.

Ironically, the wisdom in the Peace of Westphalia came from a multi-ethnic consciousness awakening that recognized that, left unaltered, petty religious and territorial conflicts animated by control of resources and trade, would lead to violent ends. Seventeenth century humanity was more awakened than most of their progeny today. And, at the core, one can discern the consideration of four dimensions of social consciousness that is required for such awakening. In an effort to simplify the concepts that I believe represent the environment into which alteration and new artifacts need to be inserted, we need to first understand our roles as Citizens, Leaders, Parents, and Provisioners

Citizens. We’ve long abandoned the recognition of the centrality of citizenship to all human endeavors involving any social structure. In our race toward the cult of the isolated identity, we failed to see that we only apprehend full identity in a context defined by the community in which we operate. Our awakening requires us to see that our liberty empowers us only when we are aligning our efforts and resources for their optimal use benefiting ourselves while insuring that others have suitable equivalent benefit and use.

Those who evidence mastery of this efficiency and inspire others by their mastery are ones worthy of the mantle of Leadership. I am deeply disappointed to see universities and business schools promote “Leadership”. The world doesn’t need leaders. Leaders emerge as being worthy of being followed – not by perceiving the direction the masses are facing and then racing to the illusive “front” of the milling masses and being the loudest voice in the room. Quality leadership empowers others to teach those characteristics that bring about a more harmonious system without pandering to self-interest or the interest of loyal sycophants.

Parents (both biologic and those acting as mentors) need to reclaim their role as both the nurturers of emerging citizens and as models of deliberate action emanating from a confident, powerful center. Rather than teaching lessons of scarcity and fear-based hording and consumption, parents need to convey the wisdom of suitable adequacy to manifest the individuated role of the provisioner.

Most radical in this understanding is the replacement of the role of the “individual” or the “consumer” popularized by our psychological or commercial memes with the omni-dimensional Provisioner. Beginning with you making sure that your own identity and well-being are sufficiently sated, you take on the capacity to understand your own productivity, consumption, and access to resources directly or through networks and then create the capacity to keep all of these in balance. Having done so for yourself, you can both steward that which you have while also engaging your capacity in the milieu of providing for those around you. Inward directed provisioning recognizes that the impulse to consume is replaced with the impulse to be adequately equipped. Outward directed provisioning recognizes that the need to be identified with what has been horded is replaced with the impulse to demonstrate the capacity to expand provisions for and to others. Identity, in this dynamic sense, fosters a perpetual reminder of one’s role as Citizen and thus the fortuitous cycle persists.

When this system is fully functioning, Presidents and CEOs won’t spend the majority of their energy reinforcing their grip on power by the suppression of others. History has demonstrated that this Tolerant Citizenship model fosters unprecedented prosperity and stability. And, to that end, let us engage in transformation by introducing new artifacts whose utility will necessitate their utility for safe transit to new behaviors – not in futile revolution.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

From the Land of Pharaohs

Against the backdrop of CNN’s broadcasts of the protests in Cairo and throughout Egypt, I took a great deal of time to reflect on the events that served as catalysts for the new wave of self-determination evidenced across the Middle East and North Africa. For years, I’ve been lecturing, writing, and conducting business inspired by a central tenant that all value exchanges must, at their core, represent a bounded correlation to production. In the last several decades, under the guise of “financial innovation” the largest monetary asset transfer has occurred in which a select few have egregiously abused monetary systems for their benefit without considering the consequences of their amoral acts. The modern dead and the defiled reliquary artifacts in the Egyptian museum are but the latest casualties of this callous indifference to the global commons and its stewardship.

Egypt is no stranger to food-inspired social unrest. And, in point of fact, one of modern history’s oldest economic models was born at a time such as this. I decided to revisit the oldest known account of Egyptian unrest to see what wisdom could be discerned to inform events of today both in the region and in the broader macro economy.

In the Biblical account of the famine in Egypt (Genesis 47: 13-26), the following story is reported.

47:13 But there was no food in all the land because the famine was very severe; the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan wasted away because of the famine. 47:14 Joseph collected all the money that could be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan as payment for the grain they were buying. Then Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. 47:15 When the money from the lands of Egypt and Canaan was used up, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food! Why should we die before your very eyes because our money has run out?”

47:16 Then Joseph said, “If your money is gone, bring your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock.” 47:17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for their horses, the livestock of their flocks and herds, and their donkeys. He got them through that year by giving them food in exchange for livestock.

47:18 When that year was over, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from our lord that the money is used up and the livestock and the animals belong to our lord. Nothing remains before our lord except our bodies and our land. 47:19 Why should we die before your very eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we, with our land, will become Pharaoh’s slaves. Give us seed that we may live and not die. Then the land will not become desolate.”

47:20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. Each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine was severe. So the land became Pharaoh’s. 47:21 Joseph made all the people slaves from one end of Egypt’s border to the other end of it. 47:22 But he did not purchase the land of the priests because the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh and they ate from their allotment that Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.

47:23 Joseph said to the people, “Since I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you. Cultivate the land. 47:24 When you gather in the crop, give one-fifth of it to Pharaoh, and the rest will be yours for seed for the fields and for you to eat, including those in your households and your little children.” 47:25 They replied, “You have saved our lives! You are showing us favor, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.”

47:26 So Joseph made it a statute, which is in effect to this day throughout the land of Egypt: One-fifth belongs to Pharaoh.

One cannot help but see in this narrative the harbinger of conditions which are being played out – merely by a new set of actors. Remember, that the context for this story was the storehouses that Joseph stewarded for seven years prior to the launch of the famine. In Genesis 41: 46-49 you read that an “immeasurable” amount of grain was collected during the seven year period preceding the food shortage – and this from excess abundance – not from forced scarcity. What is unspoken but implicit in this story is that the infrastructure and technology for food storage and security became one of the most significant public works projects in history. In a time when we don’t have food security for most of our population in any part of the world, ancient Egypt had abundance that afforded caloric resilience for 14 years!

When a food commodity price shock hits – like the famine of old – the first response was to collect all of the money. Remember, at the time, this meant that there was a “rush to metals” not unlike our present day. One can readily see how the Pharaoh had gold sufficient to line tombs when you realize that, in the first year of famine, nationalization of gold assets was the first step to a new economy. This is the first record of a national reserve bank impulse in human literature.

In the second year, Joseph provided grain in exchange for livestock. To understand the modern implications for this, one must revisit the ancient and modern understanding in much of the world that livestock was the primary indicator of heritable assets and wealth. In short, by taking all of the livestock, Joseph enacted an inheritance tax and created a state-owned pension monopoly. Sound familiar? This move is in ancient times what Social Security and entitlements are today. Further, this move represented a recognition that the units of wealth and status needed to be subordinated to a broader social good. At this point, I wonder how many of our religious right politicians take the time to realize that their Bible actually used nationalized socialism as a primary means of enacting “God’s plan”?

And then, the coup de grâce, the nationalization of private property. While the assumption of land and productive labor sounds harsh in modern times, this move is indistinguishable from the effective analog we have in the U.S. where all forms of enterprise and means of production have been usurped by the Federal Government under the guise of the Commerce Act. Once all artifacts of value and means of production were controlled, you have one of the most overlooked, yet vitally important concepts that can be deduced from this story – a flat tax. But, note the important differentiation between Joseph’s tax and what’s in place today. Tax was 20% of productivity – NOT a percentage of assets, efforts or wealth. And, while those with more communist leaning sympathies may loathe the carve-out for the priests – antiquities’ bureaucrats – note that they are NOT expected to be productive and are subsidized from the government’s share.

Upon close examination, I find this productivity-based national economic and revenue policy something dramatically missing in present day Egypt and in the rest of the industrialized world. Today, we don’t have the wisdom that allocates abundance for mass resilience; we don’t have leaders who understand the courage required to lead in time of crisis; and, we don’t have a sense of civil society and social responsibility that inspires the transcendence of the citizen over the self. Do we have a food price crisis in Egypt? Do we have a political crisis across the Middle East and North Africa? Is there a risk of contagion for violent populist uprisings around the world?

Absolutely and not really. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt is a symptom of a more fundamental problem. When the much heralded and lauded construct of “leadership” fails to stay rooted in citizenship and common accountability, volatility grows as a latent potential in any system. The more wealth transfer extremes lead to conspicuous, asymmetric consumption by the few in power at the perceived expense of the many, the greater the volatility. “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat cake”) was not a good idea in monarchist France and it’s not a good idea in Goldman-inspired modern economies. When markets preserve economic asymmetries in the face of known social inequities, there are no surprises when revolution breaks out.

So the wisdom awaiting re-emergence is the recognition that at this very moment, there are abundant excesses around the world which would meet the needs and ameliorate the fervor of the disenfranchised in Egypt. If we really want considered democratic reform, we should focus on insuring that change comes from satiated reflection, not from hungry desperation. Despotic leaders are half the problem; callous hoarders of wealth are the other. Until we address both, we will look primitive in the light of a Pharaoh and his visionary deputy.