Another depressing post
Today I went to a shelter to adopt a cat. I had never actually been to the pound before and now I know why. You can literally feel the pain of dozens of animals, as they sit in their prison cells, waiting to be adopted (unlikely) or die (much more likely). Some squeal, some bark. All look at you with sad and hopeful eyes. A lot of them are pitbulls, bred for fighting and thrown out, but some are “owner surrenders” (I cannot understand how someone could give up a 10 year old cat/dog, but if they absolutely have to - why the fuck would you give it to a pound? Find a rescue!)
As the lucky kitten we adopted lays on my lap, warm and fed, I feel horrible for every other animal I couldn’t adopt, lying alone in the cold. And suddenly a depressing thought pops in my head: there is so much pain in the world, that we are sheltered from.
Power of beliefs
In these last couple of weeks, as the election campaigns heat up, I’m reminded of the incredible power of beliefs. I suppose all of us (myself included) are guilty of this, but I certainly hope I do an above-average job of dissecting the situation objectively.
When it comes to politics in particular, I have found a lot of people I know leave aside any logic or facts and think entirely based on what they’ve believed in for years. On multiple occasions friends of mine were convinced they sided with a certain political party. But when faced with looking at the actual issues, they realized they had no idea what they’re talking about.
A friend of mine started a really awesome site called www.iSideWith.com. It’s a short quiz, asking you to rate where you stand on key issues in this election. I was surprised to find where on the political spectrum I actually am. So were several of my friends. I strongly recommend you invest 30 seconds of your time to potentially open your eyes.
Military spending needs to go
Today I caught myself thinking that I don’t really know where the federal money is going. Luckily a 5 second search on Wikipedia was able to shed some light.
3 line items immediately catch attention: Health and Human Services (which includes Medicare and Medicade), Social Security and Defense. Together they make up 71% of the budget.
While most people agree that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be reformed, I find it extremely difficult to understand why the defense budget shouldn’t just be cut (especially considering it’s part of discretionary spending). Medicare and Medicaid help sick people. Social Security keeps old people out of poverty.
Defense… well, defense from who? Keep in mind, Dept of Homeland Security is a separate agency with a $54 billion budget. Another 5 seconds on Wikipedia showed than US spends more than the next 14 countries combined, out of which only Russia, China and Saudi Arabia could ever realistically go to war with the US. It’s also interesting that as % of GDP, the only country that spends more on defense is Saudi Arabia (other countries average at less than half of what US spends).
A better way to describe Defense would be “Offense”. But the failure of Iraq and Afganistan wars should signal that something is completely broken even in that world view. In the last few weeks there was a lot of noise about the proposed budget cut of $500 billion in the military budget over the next decade. It sounds like a large number, but it’s really only 7% of the current defense budget (i.e. peanuts).
Helping sick and old people is something any civilized country should be doing (albeit more efficiently). But how can we justify spending this much on fighting with a nonexistent enemy, while spending a fraction of that on education, science and literally everything else that doesn’t involve killing people?
Romney is such an asshole
I love the fact that his defense for jumping a kid and cutting off his hair was that “he didn’t know the kid was gay”. Because it’s totally cool to bully non-gay kids.
Problems vs Opportunities
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between going after a business opportunity (vitamin) vs solving a real problem (painkiller). It’s not that one is better than the other. There are plenty of fantastic “vitamin” businesses that have gone after an opportunity in the market and “created” a problem for their solution.
But there’s another important distinction: is the problem a real, life-changing problem that will genuinely make someone’s life better, or is it a http://whitewhine.com problem (“My wallet is so full, that when I put it in my back pocket, it screws up my posture”)
I, and most people I come in contact with, live in a bubble relative to the majority of people on this planet. The problems we face, which entrepreneurs attempt to fix, are pretty ridiculous:
- “Video sharing on mobile is broken!”
- “We need to take the work out of networking!”
- “Finding movies I like is such a pain in the ass!”
- “I spend far too much time doing email!”
Fortunately these problems represent a significant market size (i.e. there are people who will pay money to have these problems solved).
Unfortunately, existential problems of the majority of the world’s population that really should get solved don’t represent a significant revenue opportunity, and aren’t viable businesses as a result. Sure there are NGOs, social entrepreneurs and programs like Google’s Project 10 to the 100, but I wonder when the regular, hungry entrepreneurs will start to focus on solving problems of people with no wallets. What’s it gonna take?
Money in politics is the root of all evil
Last year I wrote a post about our trip to Cambodia, and how we dealt with corruption on a very local level. (Quick summary: we got hit by a speeding car, whose driver was drinking with the cops right before the accident. Needless to say, justice was obstructed).
I’ve been thinking about corruption a lot lately, in light of the recent events in Russia, US and across the globe. If you don’t think corruption exists in the US, think again. Actually, here it happens on the highest level possible.
Take a look at this chart:
These 30 companies earned $164 billion in profit, while receiving $11 billion in tax rebates (i.e. a negative tax). At the same time these companies paid $476 million in lobbying expenses. (I’m pretty sure “lobbying expenses” is what the driver of the car that hit us paid those cops in Cambodia.)
Part 1: Corporations
Corporations are actually doing what’s in their best interest. In fact, it is management’s responsibility to maximize shareholder value, and if there is a tax loophole that would increase net profit, the company has to use it. If there’s an opportunity to influence the politicians to create favorable legislation, leading to higher profits, management would be irresponsible not to do it.
I’m all for business, proft, growth and value. In fact, that’s what I do every day. At some point in my life I plan to get out of “business”, and go into the nonprofit sector (to give back to the society I’ve taken so much from.) At that point, things I’ll care about will social good - NOT money. It will be possible to play both roles simultaneously: a) to be a businessman focused on maximizing profit, and b) to be in a non-profit role focused on social good. Lots of people manage both quite well. However, it is critical to prevent conflict of interest. This is the root of the problem in America. Lobbying creates that conflict of interest by allowing politicians to be influenced by corporate interest.
Part 2: Government
Surprise, surprise… government officials are acting in their best interest as well. The main reason politicians accept contributions is to finance campaigning. In 2010 midterm elections $4.2 billion dollars were spent just on TV ads.
Just to clarify, roughly $2.1 billion was spent by Party A, totally trashing Party B. The other $2.1 billion was spent by Part B, trashing Party A.
(It’s just like the old joke… John to Paul: “Paul, I’ll give you $100 if you eat this pile of shit.” Paul does it, then says to John: “Ok, now how about I give you $100 to eat this other pile of shit.” John does it, and that’s when they realize they each just ate shit for free.)
Political campaigning in America is a farce. It leads to public good being corrupted by corporate interests, while all the parties act in their best interest, without breaking any laws.
Part 3: Solution
The problem isn’t in bad people. The problem is the system is set up wrong. But isn’t it as simple as closing the tax loopholes, and eliminating political ads? Then everyone will continue to act in their best interest, without any conflict of interest with the public good?
What’s wrong with America
I read this quote in a book, and I think it captures what’s wrong in the United States perfectly:
“The United States has long thought itself to be a nation “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s not a coincidence that this nation rose to become the most prosperous on Earth. It is also not surprising that this nation is gradually losing all that it has worked so hard to create - for this nation seems to have lost its vision.
Religious freedom has become religious righteousness bordering on religious intolerance. Individual freedom has all but vanished as individual responsibility disappeared. The notion of individual responsibility has been distorted to mean “every man for himself”. This is the new philosphy that imagines itself to be harkening back to the Early American tradition of rugged individualism.
But in the original sense of individual responsibility upon which the American vision and the American dream was based, found its deepest meaning in the concept of Brotherly Love. What made America great was not that every man struggled for his own survival, but that every man accepted individual responsibility for the survival of all.
America was a nation that would not turn its back on the hungry, would never say no to the needy, would open its arms to the weary and the homelesss, and would share its abundance with the world.
Yet as America became great, Americans became greedy. Not all, but many. And, as time went on, more and more. As Americans saw how good it was possible to have it, they sought to have it even better. Yet there was only one way to have more and more. Someone else had to have less and less.
As greed replaced greatness in the American character, there was less room for compassion for the least among the people. The less fortunate were told it was their “own damned fault.” if they didn’t have more. After all, Amwerica was the Land of Opportunity, was it not? No one except for the less fortunate found it possible to admit that America’s opportunity was limited, institutionally, to those already on the inside track. In general, these have not included many minorities.
Americans became arrogant internationally as well. As millions starved across the globe, Americans threw enough food each day to feed entire nations. America was generous with some, yes - but increasingly its foreign policy came to be an extension of her own vested interests. America helped others when it served America to do so. (That is, when it served America’s power structure, America’s richest elite, or the military machine that protected those elite - and their collective assets.)
Each person must take responsibility for himself or herself - that is undeniably true. But America (and the world) can truly work only when every person is willing to stand responsible for everyone as a whole.
This country is going to shit, I’m out
This month we’re going to do Brad Feld’s patented “month away from home” thing. Not a vacation, but a change of location for a month (so don’t go saying “Have a nice vacation” - I’ma be working).
I was amazed at the level of effort to plug into the startup scene the couple of cities we’re visiting. It took me literally 3 hours to do the following:
1) sign up for a few meetups, including my favorite Lean Startup Circle
2) set up drinks with active folks in the community (meetup organizers, entrepreneurs etc)
3) sign up to speak at a conference
4) find a desk at coworking spaces that fit my profile (if you haven’t been to Deskfinder, do it now)
For quite some time I’ve been preaching that every year your physical location matters less and less, as long as you have a 10+ Mbps connection (especially with Skype, Google Voice and FreeConferenceCall.com). But I had no idea it was this easy to plug into local communities.
Will let you know how it goes, and maybe next year we’ll go to Antarctica. I just hope the US and A is still around when we’re back in September.
America is the Roman Empire of Our Time
Watching the debate over the debt ceiling made me lose the last bit of hope over the sanity of United States of America. Here’s why.
1. It is insane to address the spending, but not the revenue
Since republicans like to run government like a business, let’s lower to that level for a second. In business, revenue growth is top priority. In going after revenue, first you target the low hanging fruit. You look at the big picture, identify the big opportunities and knock them down. If a CEO goes to the board and tells them that he is going to go after a bunch of small clients, while ignoring a handful of obvious giant ones (who happen to just be sitting there asking to be sold), he’ll be fired. This is business 101.
So why is it even a debate that we should raise taxes on the top 1%? Oooh, I forgot. Because if we raise taxes on them, they won’t go out and create jobs. WHAT? This is such a giant leap in logic, that I won’t even go there. It’s been proven that trickle down economics doesn’t work.
A friend told me of a guy he knows who lives on $850/month in social security. Last month his check was reduced by $250. How can any society, capitalist or socialist, find it acceptable to debate (and even fight for!) protecting the interests of the top 1% at the expense of everyone else. Especially since we are not talking about cutting off their heads! Just raising their taxes! A little! In a time of the lowest tax rates in 50 years! Why is even suggesting this considered “communist”? The reason is this:
2. America is run by that 1%
I find it insulting that America’s founding principle was “all men are created equal”. Right. Only if by “men” you actually mean “not women, black men, or Native Americans”. OK, really only white men are created equal. And some are more equal than others.
Wake up people. From the very beginning American ideology was bullshit. America was one of the last civilized countries to give women the right to vote. Or to allow “coloreds” to drink water from the same fountain. The same bullshit is true today.
Yes, America is a democracy. People vote for their representatives. But they are fed so much misinformation that they vote against their own interest! The retardation of Joe The Plumber and others who believe that they will one day be part of the top 1% knows no limits. If you’re a plumber, you will not get rich. Period.
I believe the reason is that the top 1% controls public policy, via the genius that is lobbying. America is the only First World country where genetically modified food is allowed. It’s the only country that reversed the Clean Water and Air protection act to allow drilling that poisons everything around it. It’s the only country where the same people responsible for the worst financial crisis in generations are still running our financial policy. Isn’t it strange that Hank Paulson, who started selling derivatives that caused the meltdown, is the one who organized the bailout?
All of this is because the lobby is stronger than the government’s desire to protect its citizens.
I’m an immigrant, and I’m grateful for everything America has given me. It has been a great place to live for many people for a long time. Unfortunately this may not be the case in the near future. The parallels between USA and the late Roman Empire are staggering. From being overstretched abroad, to the elite robbing the country blind while the masses are being entertained by arena fights/reality TV shows. People have to realize what’s going on around them, and decide to do something about it.
PS: Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy that John Boehner is pronounced “Bayner”, not “Boner”?
Christian terrorism and tabloid culture
Two related thoughts on a Saturday afternoon.
1. For those who think all terrorists are Muslim, the events in Norway yesterday must have been particularly earth-shattering. The terrorist was an ultra-conservative Christian lunatic. I stronly believe organized religion is one of the biggest evils on our planet. And extreme Christianity, coupled with right-wing concervatism, is just as bad as extreme Islam.
2. It’s been one day since 92 kids died in Norway, and #Norway is already no longer a trending tweet. #Amywinehouse is #1. In a fair world, I’d like to see at least 92 times more RIPs on Facebook/Twitter for Norway, than for a celebrity, albeit talented, who was largely responsible for her own death.
Bombs in Moscow: cause and effect
Who’s really to blame for the oil spill
This is the first joint post by me and my wife Nadine (you can see her excellent blog here) since this is a subject we’re both becoming more and more passionate / pissed off about.
Everywhere people are appalled by the oil spill, and rightfully so. BP’s stupidity, greed, carelessness, etc is unbelievable. They certainly are to blame, but there’s SO much more to it.
First of all, this is far from the first time this has happened. Terrible oil spills are a regular occurrence in Africa, South America and the Middle East. We just never hear about them because they are far from us, and it’s usually American companies that are responsible. (BTW they typically don’t clean up their mess or pay damages).
Murphy’s Law clearly states “If you drill for oil, it will spill”. It has to happen. Certainly you can minimize the risk (which BP didn’t do to save money), but it would happen eventually. Same applies to nuclear meltdowns, and wind turbine breakdowns (in which case it just stops spinning). The oil industry has caused a lot of pain on this planet, and it’s only growing.
We read this article a few days ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/opinion/13friedman.html and kept on thinking that this man nailed it. Finally, someone says it like it is.
Friedman doesn’t blame BP or anyone for what happened in the Gulf, he blames himself and his lifestyle. He blames himself for not seeing the light after the events of 9/11, of still buying his wife a SUV. Of not thinking twice that his actions have implications that may result in something like we got now.
Most ancient religions (from Buddhism to Islam to Christianity) have a key insight: whatever you see wrong in others also exists in yourself. If you’re pissed at someone stupidity – look at yourself, you have it too. If you’re pissed at someone’s greed – you have it too. Most people agree Hitler was incredibly evil, and they have none of his qualities. But how often do we express prejudice towards a group of people because of their name, religion, skin color or disability? This doesn’t equate us to Hitler, but we do have some of his qualities. (However, as a side note, if you look at how we treat animals, especially in factory farms, we are EXACTLY like Hitler. But that’s subject for another post.)
The same applies to the oil spill. You can blame BP for screwing up our environment – but look at yourself first. Do you drive an SUV? Then shut the f*** up about BP! Do you think a Prius looks stupid and prefer a cooler looking ride? Shut the f*** up! (BTW, lots of VERY rich celebrities drive Priuses and other Hybrids, so your ego doesn’t have anything to fear – it’s cool now. Plus it comes with the benefit of others not being able to estimate your income! A hybrid or electric car is more of a statement of what you stand for than just a status symbol.)
Of course there are exceptions (i.e. can’t afford a smart choice) but we need to understand that we are all responsible. This is what it all comes down to - all of our actions and choices have implications somewhere somehow.
A friend reminded us of a simple truth which we haven’t heard in a long time: “with freedom comes responsibility, choose wisely. Most of us have forgotten this responsibility”.
And further, most of us haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves and actions in a long long time. Every time you go to a gas station and fill up your car that gets less than 30 miles a gallon, you send a statement. If you bought this car why should the car industry not take the check the oil industries offer them? Since centuries they got the patents for much more efficient cars but it wasn’t in the big guys best interest.
Humans show such tunnel vision. We complain about others greed and stupidity but we allow our own greed, need for status symbols and ego to be of more value than the place we inhabit. Killing the hand that feeds us, literally.
Another friend of ours, the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car”, said something very smart: “We simply must tax fossil fuels to cover their true costs - spills, pollution, health issues - if we ever want to break the habit and let alternatives compete one on one…”
Is this the only thing that will get us to stop? Money?
One a more positive note, please join tomorrow, June 26th : http://www.handsacrossthesand.com/
Holiday in Cambodia
This was originally posted in April 2010 on my old Wordpress blog (boring). Time to welcome the 21st century and move to Posterous!
Part one: The AccidentTwo weeks ago my wife and I returned from vacation in SouthEast Asia. We had decided to go back-packer style, and only plan 48 hours ahead. We had set up the first couple of days in Cambodia to visit Angkor Watand left the rest of the trip open (later we decided to fly to neighboring Laos). Our first couple of days in Cambodia were fantastic. The temples at Angkor are even amazing than in pictures, and far exceeded our expectations. On our 4th day we took a tuk tuk (local taxi - kind of like a bench on wheels attached to a motorcycle, here’s a picture) to visit another local attraction – a floating village. On the way to there I was thinking about my next blog post about how nice Cambodia was - beautiful, great food, everyone is friendly, even the traffic manages to function ok without any police or order (of course there were lots of downsides as well, such as abundance of trash - which will be subject of another blog post.) I would describe tuk tuks and Cambodian traffic as “functioning chaos” - there are no hard rules, everyone can do whatever they want, but people manage to share the road, and there are less accidents than you would expect. As we learned, it takes only one asshole to screw everything up.
We were riding along a small country road, surrounded by houses and children playing on the side of the road, when we saw a car speeding towards us. There was a curve in the road, and at the speed the car was going, it couldn’t stay in its lane. Nadine and I saw this car screeching towards a head-on collision with our bike/bench contraption, and both said “Oh fuck…” Luckily our tuk tuk driver was able to swerve last second, and the car’s side panel ended up smashing into my side of the tuk tuk. Somehow I leaned away from it and ended up with just a scratch. But the impact caused the tuk tuk to flip over onto Nadine’s side, and her shoulder, hand, knee and foot ended up on the ground, acting as a break for our vehicle.
Once we stopped, I saw Nadine lying on the ground, covered in dirt and blood under the tuk tuk. She saw the panic in my eyes, and sat up to calm me down. I glanced back, expecting to the car to stop and driver to run towards us to see if we’re ok. I was surprised to see the car speeding away even faster. But I was even more surprised that nobody around seemed annoyed with that. There were literally 3 cops right next to us, who came running, but none of them even glanced towards the car, tried to chase it, or even write down the license plate number. Everyone was more preoccupied with us and astonished that we were able to walk stumble away from the accident.
There was a pharmacy nearby, where we poured copious amounts of hydrogen peroxide over Nadine’s many wounds, which hurt like hell. Luckily she didn’t break anything except her toe, but got lots of bruises and deep cuts, and still hasn’t recovered 3 weeks later. I was furious with the police, and their lack of care about catching the hit-and-run criminal. While Nadine was recovering, attended to by a doctor in the hotel room, I was yelling at the police, explaining to them the seriousness of this crime, and trying to understand why nobody cared.
Part 2: Corruption
My frustration grew when I began to understand the grimness of the situation we - and most of the citizens of Cambodia - were facing:
- The villagers told me that the cops were drinking beer with the hit-and-runner earlier that day.
- The cops finally gave me the license plate number (although I’m not sure if they just made it up.) But since “this car comes from a different province, it would be very difficult to find it, so I shouldn’t keep my hopes up.”
- The cops confiscated the broken tuk tuk, and wanted the driver (who saved our life by swerving from a head-on collision) to pay them US$50 for storing it. Later they wanted $200 for giving it back. (Average monthly salary in Cambodia is ~$60-70)
- It became clear that if we, the tourists, weren’t involved, there wouldn’t even be a police report filed. It also became clear that if anyone died, the situation wouldn’t be any different.
- Later a couple we met told us about an accident they witnessed in Phnom Penh (Cambodian capital), where a police officer car ran over and killed a child, then drove away.
I believe corruption of power is the worst disaster that can happen to a country. It leaves its people without rights, resources or any feeling of power or fairness. And when other disasters strike (man-made or natural) corrupt governments make sure none of the resources go where needed.
I’ve dealt with corruption in Russia, and I know how it affects the psyche of the people. The feeling of powerlessness becomes pretty normal. Cambodian history in the late 1970s is a horrific example of corruption – where its government raped and tortured its own people, killing one third of the population and treating the rest worse than POWs. Those 3 years of Khmer Rouge still have an effect on its people 30 years later. For instance, the fact that there were 30 reported child rapes in the month of April, in the town of Siem Reap alone, says a lot about the society.
We’ve all heard the saying: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I wonder if this is always the case. It certainly seems that way in authoritarian societies. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Singapore – a very well functioning state, where the same family has controlled the government for decades.)
But democratic governments are also prone to corruption. For instance, US has a very peculiar type of democracy - one you can buy with money. We don’t think of our government as corrupt, but lobbyists spent $3.5 billion last year on influencing congress. This shows that in the US corruption reaches much higher. While the police or low ranking officials would never take a bribe, congressmen have actually legalized bribe-taking and called it lobbyism. I’m sure a lot more goes on behind the scenes there.
So what is it that causes corruption – is it power itself? That’s what I was wondering, looking at the Cambodian cops who only cared about extorting cash from a poor local and didn’t give a shit about catching the bad guy who almost killed us. Is it the same greed that causes so many politicians to forfeit their promises to serve the people who elected them? It’s easy to say if we were in their shoes, we stand by our ideals, but why does this happen over an over? Does power really change people? Or is it that most people who want power have greedy/dirty motivations?
Then I learned something that added another dimension to the puzzle. The salary of a Cambodian policeman is $20 (compared with the country average of $60), AND have to buy their uniforms themselves. The reason they are so greedy is not only because they have the power, but also because their job doesn’t provide them with the means to make a living. Could it be that the real cause of corruption of power is not power itself – but general powerlessness, coupled with little bits of power over others? In this case we have a vicious cycle of a “victim’s victim,” where people are so used to being deprived of something (money, power, sex), that as soon as they have access to it, they grab as much of it as they can. In order to stop this cycle, we must ensure that everyone around us, especially the younger generations, feel powerful over themselves and their environment.
I don’t know what the real cause is, but I sense we are generally moving in the right direction.