Monthly Archives: July 2009

Barbecue summer, or not

London rain

We’ve arrived to a cliché.

My family landed this morning at Heathrow for a three-week visit to London, principally to see family and friends. The big news here is that the Met Office, the national weather service, has had to revise its April forecast of a “barbecue summer”. When I drove to Sainsbury’s supermarket in my jetlagged state at lunchtime, a gleeful-sounding BBC reporter was speaking to people staring at the rain in the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare.

I can remember the feeling from my quarter century living in London. There’s nothing you want to do more than escape to somewhere sunny and warm. This time, however, is different for me. I live somewhere sunny and warm (excepting those lovely cool mornings and nights). I see plenty of sun. It may sound odd, but it’s truly comforting to come to a steady drizzle.

I reserve the right to change my mind if it doesn’t stop for three weeks.

Photo by Jase n Tonic on Flickr

Delving into the California budget

As a relatively new Californian, I’m closely following the negotiations to pass a budget for the state. It’s understandably the lead story for most news media here, but there are some big holes in the information I’m getting.

There’s great blow-by-blow coverage if you know where to look. Calitics, “a progressive open source news organization for California politics”, is a must-read.  The Sacramento Bee seems to do a better job than my sorry local, The San Francisco Chronicle, or the LA Times. The SacBee is the only one that actually has a landing page for budget news. Seems obvious.

But here’s what I want and can’t find. I’d like a basic chart of expenditures and revenues, revised as the plan morphs with political horse-trading. The state’s own finance department has a half-good budget site where you can study the governor’s budget proposals — all on PDFs, blech. The LA Times created an interactive budget balancer a few weeks ago so readers could understand the difficult trade-offs. But no one seems to be showing me what I want to know as the news happens.

Why does this matter? Unless you’re really into the nitty-gritty of the budget, and most of us aren’t, how can you put a statement like $1.2 billion will be cut from prisons into context? Or that education will be cut $6b and higher education a further $2.8 billion. $6b from what? No one seems to think that matters.

Wouldn't you rather be here?

Shanti San Miguel pool

My sister Brett who is building a new life in Mexico reports:

One would think that after opening three businesses, I would have learned a thing or two, but inevitably, one would be wrong.

Once again, I have overspent, thrown all my energy and money into building the kind of place that I would like to go to…and as usual, failed to realize that the rest of the world is not on the same page as I am.

My original thought was to build a small hotel out here in the countryside…but I left my life in Chicago to have a better life–I mean, to have a life outside of work…and a hotel requires attention 24/7.

So then I thought, why not an oasis–a place where one could come for the day, relax on a chaise lounge by a turquoise pool, watch the clouds drift by overhead, eat fabulous Indian food, perhaps take a yoga class or a massage…and then, refreshed and invigorated, head into San Miguel and party or whatever the night away (while somebody else–not me–waits for you to come back at 3 a.m.)

Great concept, right? Easy to comprehend, yes? Appealing, yes?


Read the whole story. I think there’s a Peter Mayle-like book lurking in there, but certainly some enterprising journalist could write a wonderful business/travel account of entrepreneurship in Mexico.

Honestly, if you have a chance to go to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, check out Shanti San Miguel.

Is innovation fair?

No. Next question?

I went to an excellent lunchtime discussion organized by non pareil connector Sylvia Paull today with the topic, “Is innovation fair?” The discussion was led by professional controversialist Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur. What made the discussion so good wasn’t the quality of the question, which I really think answers itself, but the quality of the people around the table, who had a more nuanced, historically aware perspective than Keen.

To be fair, Keen did touch on an issue that I do think is important. Given that innovation isn’t fair — it creates winners and losers — what can we do as a society to ensure we don’t create a permanent underclass? That’s worth considerable debate, and there’s no easy answer. Providing universal Internet access may be part of the answer — Keen seems to argue elsewhere that it’s the answer — but I think it’s a minor part of achieving greater equity in society. The alleviation of poverty and access to better education, to take two modest goals, are vastly more critical to a better distribution of innovation — and its potential rewards — in our society. Over and above that I believe that societies will need to find new ways to provide a safety net and the necessary retraining for those truly displaced by the shifts occasioned by some innovation. Have a look, for example, at Denmark’s flexicurity for one innovation that seems to be working in that direction.

But I also think a misunderstanding of both innovation and the particular moment we’re at in terms of innovation was voiced by a number of people at the lunch. First, innovation isn’t just the kind of stuff that happens in Palo Alto and Mountain View. It doesn’t necessarily involve corporate or wealth creation. There’s extraordinary social innovation happening globally today. And there’s plenty of malevolent innovation as well — look what financial innovation has wrought.

Second, I don’t think it’s historically accurate to say we’re in an age of unprecedented innovation. We may be more aware of the innovation that is occurring — that is certainly one of the impacts of the Internet’s instant, pervasive communications. We also are witnessing historically dramatic innovation in a particularly visible sphere — media. It’s unsurprising that the media — whether traditional or new — provides a particularly urgent view of that change. Many other fields, however, have undergone their periods of cataclysmic change at other times. We see amazing innovations in medicine, for example, but are the leaps greater than Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin or Ignatz Semmelweis’ work on the importance of hygiene?  The nineteenth century leaps provided by, say, the Erie Canal or the railways, were other periods of bewildering innovation and change.

Finally, there’s a misunderstanding of how innovation happens. Keen asked several times, “Can you teach innovation?” If people know where to look, there’s an enormous amount of rigorous work that has been done examining how innovation really happens. I particularly like Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen.  Innovation happens in teams, it happens with diversity of ideas, it happens by recombining old ideas, more than the Hollywood image of a lone genius who gains a sudden, stunning insight. We probably can’t teach innovation as such, but we can help people and organizations develop cultures, structures and reward systems that make innovation more rather than less likely.

How did Obama do in Ghana?

Obama in Ghana

Two development economists whose blogs I read regularly graded president Obama’s speech in Ghana. If you’re interested in Africa and development you should read both analyses, but here’s a summary.

Bill Easterly likes some bits and doesn’t like others. Obama gets an A+ for two passages:

Africa’s future is up to Africans.


Yet because of incentives – often provided by donor nations – many African doctors and nurses …work for programs that focus on a single disease. This creates gaps in primary care and basic prevention.

But Easterly gives this passage an F:

Our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world.

There’s no overall grade, but I suspect on a weighted average he’d give it a B- (that F really pulls the average down).

Chris Blattman also gives A+ for the phrase “Africa’s future is up to Africans”. He awards A- for a passage in praise of Ghana’s elections last year and this section, promoting export-oriented policies:

From South Korea to Singapore, history shows that countries thrive when they invest in their people and in their infrastructure … when they promote multiple export industries, develop a skilled work force and create space for small and medium-sized businesses that create jobs.

As Africans reach for this promise, America will be more responsible in extending our hand. By cutting costs that go to Western consultants and administration, we want to put more resources in the hands of those who need it, while training people to do more for themselves.

Blattman sinks to a D in response to a passage where Obama decried corruption, and said the State Department will pay more attention to it in human rights reports. Blattman’s response is more interesting than the president’s speech:

At African Independence, nearly every nation’s system was parliamentary. Within a few years, all but four had concentrated tyrannical power in a President. Corruption is a symptom of a that disease. The cure: balance that power. Anything less will fail.

The puritanical quest to fight corruption is not a terrible one. It is merely insufficient. I hate corruption. It makes my blood boil. I want to punch someone if the nose if they ask me for a bribe. And that is why we should mistrust our instincts to make corruption the #1 fight; it is an emotional crusade, not a rational policy.

And anyone who thinks corruption blocks development should study their 19th century US history. Politics in New York, Washington, and Chicago make the Nigerians look like June Cleaver.

Blattman’s overall grade: A-.

It’s still great having a president who says things that are worth grading.

The late great state of California

Willem Buiter always has a cheery perspective:

The state still services its outstanding stock of official debt with cash, which is why no formal event of default has been called yet, but de-facto California has already defaulted on its financial obligations and commitments by paying suppliers and employees with funny money rather than with cash.  When the banks stop accepting the IOUs except possibly at massive discounts, which will happen soon unless an early resolution of the budgetary stalemate is achieved, the state of California will close down for business.  Municipalities and counties dependent on state funds will follow suit.  Before long the teachers won’t teach, the fire fighters won’t fight fires, the police won’t maintain law and order and neither garbage nor taxes will get collected.  It will be a grand Hobbesian experiment.

For those who don’t recall their political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan, came up with the happy phrase that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The value of reappraisal

It’s rare for any writer or publication to go back to re-examine books or ideas whose time seems to have passed. I think that’s a pity. We need more reappraisal, not least because of the increasingly frenetic cycles of judgment and analysis.

So it was a pleasure to read Ronald Brownstein’s review in Democracy of five books on the Republican’s permanent majority, all published in 2005 and 2006. As Brownstein points out, for those with eyes to see, the crumbling of Karl Rove’s strategy was already apparent when these books came out. But much of the journalism and opinion establishment — what Jay Rosen calls the Church of the Savvy — fails even today to see the changes that swept over America in the last four years.

I particularly enjoyed how Brownstein draws out some of the analytical flaws in the paeans to Rove:

The authors of the books under review are smart people and skilled analysts, and they got a lot of things right. But their obsession with Rove and the conservative movement’s institution-building mostly blinded them to the flaws in the Right’s blueprint. Rove was a brilliant tactician in the service of a fundamentally flawed strategy. Almost uniformly these books focused so much on the former that they ignored the latter. Even more important, this intense concentration diverted the authors’ attention from the waves of demographic and economic change that were eroding the Republicans’ position and strengthening the Democrats’. In that respect, these writers were hardly alone. Ten or even five years ago, few Democrats envisioned that their party would attract the coalition of voters that actually elected Barack Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities last year. Even now, many Democrats still don’t acknowledge how much their modern coalition differs from their historic image of the party. The story of the Democratic revival, the story that these books missed in their fascination with Rove and the conservative movement, is a tale of what might be called the accidental coalition.

I wonder what other once-conventional wisdom could be due for reappraisal?

Unlikely Davos comparison

Venus and Serena playing doubles

I don’t hark back to Davos very often on Davos Newbies. But I was amused at this reference by Pete Bodo, one of my favorite tennis writers:

Here’s something that bothers me about the lack of exposure for doubles: It means that the vast bulk of matches in which the Williams sisters play together are simply not seen. I can’t tell you want a pleasure it is to watch Venus and Serena on a doubles court. They seem so. . . relaxed – so contented and committed to the task at hand. They smack palms, utter encouragements, and hold conferences – meetings so focused that they wouldn’t be out of place at Davos, or wherever it is that all those beautiful minds get together to flatter and stroke each other.

Still here

A friend emailed me the other day wondering why there was so little happening on Davos Newbies.

Truth to tell, most of my blogging energy is going to InBerkeley these days. I try to write two or three times a day there, but the content is probably of limited interest to non-Berkeleyites. Other than that, I find I put brief, link-based items, the kind of thing that Jay Rosen calls mindcasting, on Twitter, rather than my blog.

But I’m not abandoning Davos Newbies. Here are some short takes:

  • Staggering quote of the day from Nancy Birdsall: “The economy of sub-Saharan Africa—including Nigeria and South Africa—is smaller than the economy of New York City.”
  • Best read so far this summer: Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The weeks leading up to the death of Zia ul-Haq together with the unfortunate adventures of a Pakistani air force academy cadet. Early Salman Rushdie (think Shame) meets Graham Greene.
  • C-ROADS, the “decision-maker-oriented international climate simulator” is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a long time. I want to write more about it soon. The acronym stands for “Climate Rapid Overview and Decision-support Simulator”.